“You want to see our smallest therapy dog?” Todd Pitner asks children and parents through their cracked hospital room doors. When they nod or exclaim “Yes!” he brings in Zammy, a 106-pound Sheepadoodle therapy dog. Their eyes widen into saucers, immediately followed by smiles that tickle the corners of their ears. Without further ado, they lose their hands in his tousled, white fluffy coat.
“You can’t stop putting your fingers in his hair,” Todd said. “It becomes kinesthetic. So these kids, everyone — the doctors, the nurses, and the physical therapists want to feel Zammy.”
Zammy makes rounds every Monday at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa, Florida, providing comfort to patients, families, and employees by keeping them company and spreading some of his boundless joy.
“He is super present with you. Both the parents and the patients really appreciate him,” Todd said. “His only filter is love. There is no discrimination in that dog — someone who is handicapped, not handicapped, black or white, speaks English or doesn’t.”
Todd immediately knew Zammy was special when he was flown from Southern California to Tampa on February 14, 2017, becoming the Pitner family’s Valentine’s Day baby. Months later, Zammy met Shawnya, a 12-year-old girl from the Caribbean hosted by Todd’s neighbor. Back home, she was bullied for her curved leg, but after finding a local Tampa sponsor, she was flown to Tampa to receive surgery at Shriners Hospitals for Children.
When Shawnya first met Zammy, she had just finished one of her surgeries and was in a lot of pain. Zammy immediately took to her.
“He brought so much joy to her,” Todd said. “When you’re in his presence, you don’t feel any pain, and I knew she was really hurting.”
Immediately after this interaction, Todd knew what he had to do. He decided to make Zammy a therapy dog.
“I wanted him to become a therapy dog, but not just any therapy dog — a Shriners Hospitals for Children’s therapy dog, because that’s where she (Shawnya) went,” Todd said.
At 13 months old, Zammy became a certified therapy dog, proving that his performance was spectacular enough to dismiss the requirement of being at least 18 months for the certification training test. Soon after, Zammy joined the family at Shriners Hospitals for Children and quickly made his way into the hearts of employees, patients, and parents.
In and out of hospital rooms Zammy went, leaving behind countless smiles along the way.
Whenever 6-year-old Bentley hears a jingle from Zammy’s collar, he stops what he’s doing to interact with him. Whether that means racing with the sheepadoodle on his scooter board during therapy, lifting his head up to look into his eyes, or playfully running his little fingers through the shaggy jungle of Zammy’s neck, Bentley always enjoys being with him. Bentley’s mother Linda sits nearby reflecting the pure joy on her son’s face.
(Bentley, 6, is accompanied by Zammy during one of his therapy sessions at Shriners Hospital for Children. Bentley has been a patient with Shriners since he was two years old. Photos by Deshlee Ford.)
“The happiness Zammy brings to Bentley every week is priceless,” Linda said. “There are those days that we all just feel so blah. Bentley has those days too. There’s been times where he’s had those days, and then he sees Zammy, and his whole world lights up!”
As a mom with a special needs child, Linda is used to being stuck in the same daily and weekly routines. Therapies, school, appointments, repeat. But every Monday, Linda and Bentley have something to look forward to — Zammy.
“The bond that Bentley has formed with Zammy is irreplaceable,” Linda said.
The heartfelt connections Zammy makes have expanded beyond the hospital and even beyond Florida. In fact, he is known all over the internet and all over the world.
The giant sheepadoodle went viral a year ago after he was featured on a subreddit thread on Reddit called “Aww,” filled with photos and videos of precious babies, puppies, and other animals. The picture with Zammy titled “Girls loving this fluffy sheepadoodle” received more than 11,000 upvotes. Zammy’s Instagram account went from 62 followers to 4,000 overnight Zammy went from having 62 followers to 114,000 and counting.
Todd started Zammy’s Instagram account @ZammpyPup to share pictures and videos of the sheepadoodle with his two daughters who were away from home. Since then, he has kept a huge focus on making sure Zammy’s social media account is up to date and used as a public space where people can come together to celebrate his favorite furry friend.
“It has had this butterfly effect,” Todd said. “He has literal followers from every country on this planet.”
Todd has watched Zammy grow from Shriners’ therapy dog into the world’s therapy dog. Throughout the years, he says he has learned the importance of being kind by having Zammy in his life.
“Kind is a good adjective for him. It sums him up,” Todd said. “His kindness has worn off on me, which wears off on other people. That just becomes, I think, infectious. He inspires people.”
(Todd Pitner sits on his couch with Zammy and pulls out a pink and grey dog toy. Zammy, a 106-pound Sheepadoodle, takes up half of Todd’s couch. Photos by Deshlee Ford.)
To find out more about Zammy, make sure to take a look at his Instagram page @ZammyPup and follow him for updates!
For more information on Shriners Hospitals for Children or to donate, please visit https://www.shrinershospitalsforchildren.org/shc.