Downeast Dog News
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Monson, the Award-Winning Therapy Dal

By Susan Spisak | Mar 01, 2021
Photo by: Elizabeth MacWilliams

Melissa MacWilliams and her 9-year-old Dalmatian, Monson, have been the focus of media attention of late. The friendly and gentle “Dal” won the 2020 AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence (ACE) in the Therapy Category. The ACE awards – established in 2000 - are bestowed to dogs who’ve made significant contributions to their communities. (The other categories are Uniformed Service K-9, Service, Search and Rescue, and Exemplary Companion dog.)

“It’s been a gift to experience so many different situations with him,” said MacWilliams, adding Monson’s the only Dalmation to ever win in the therapy category. The reality of winning so moved her, she cried when she opened his engraved sterling silver ACE medallion. (It was mailed as the in-person ceremony was cancelled.) “I was overwhelmed and honored,” she said as the AKC received 800 submissions, and she’s thankful to her good friend, Dawn Elliot-Johnson, for nominating the Therapy Dogs International (TDI) certified duo, in a 500-word essay.

The Buxton resident and co-owner of the professional landscape company, Twinscapes, with her identical twin, Jennifer Ettinger, knows Monson’s accepting and easy-going personality lends itself to his visits. “He’s so versatile. He’s great with babies on up to elderly residents.” He genuinely loves the job – MacWilliams said Dals need one for their energy level. He’s thrilled when his TDI bandana comes out, then cries in his car crate. “He’s so excited, you can’t train that.” He’s can’t wait to see his friends and bring sunshine to those whose days need brightening.

Bud Boccone, Managing Editor of the AKC Gazette and one of the ACE judges, praised Monson’s work ethic in an online video. (Make no mistake, his owner/handler/mom, received kudos, too.) “I have to lie down after reading this resume for Monson because I was exhausted just thinking about what they do. They go everywhere, they touch upon every phase of society it seems, homeless people, elderly people. And they’ve got the entire educational system lined up.”

The “resume” he’s referring to is their pre-pandemic weekly schedule – they’ll return to it when allowed. There’s Preble Street Teen Center in Portland - her husband, Matt Dion, joins them here as well. They spend time with homeless and runaway teens, some suffering from PTSD, addictions, abuse, disabilities, and personality disorders. Another Portland stop is Logan Place, which offers apartments for the homeless. “Some of these people suffer from mental illness, alcoholism, and other substance abuse…It doesn’t faze him at all,” she said of Monson. “No one wants these ailments…I think we need to look at it through the eyes of a dog, a dog loves unconditionally.”

Sacopee Valley High Schoolers in Hiram enjoy chatting with MacWilliams and petting Monson in the library. At Sacopee Valley Middle School, they hit several classrooms where Monson, a member of TDI’sTail Waggin’ Tutors, is treated to stories from students who benefit from reading to him. The residents of Gorham House Retirement & Assisted Living Facility in Gorham look forward to him stopping by. And several times a year, the team ventures to Biddeford and the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine during exam weeks to calm test jitters.

Children, teens, and adults alike share confidences with the spotted Dal. They drop their fears and shyness. “I can’t explain it…but once they trust us and start talking, it’s a miraculous experience…It’s moved me to tears so many times because I get to see the barriers being broken.”

While she doesn’t have a favorite place to visit, she and her husband bonded with a one-time homeless teen at Preble Street. When he transferred to a living facility in the Belgrade Lakes Region, the three visited him monthly and caught up while walking in nearby woods. “That was an amazing experience.” He recently graduated from high school and is going on to an Associate College.

Her “Long Story”

MacWilliams credits his co-breeders with Monson’s ease of meeting strangers and early socialization. Before she brought him home at 8 weeks of age, he’d met over 100 people at the bank, nursing homes, and Christmas parties. “I think that left an imprint on him.” When her grandmother was in an Alzheimer Care Nursing Facility, MacWilliams took a young Monson along to bring extra smiles. “I just knew, he just loved everyone,” she said. That led her to complete their TDI team certification four years ago. It’s been rewarding for both – but he originally came into her life for her own well-being.

In her early 20’s, MacWilliams was diagnosed with terminal Scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. (Years later, tests proved it wasn’t terminal. Her system “rebooted”,and she’s in remission.) “It really kind of knocked the wind out of my sails for quite a few years.” She was sad when many didn’t understand. “People asked, ‘Why can’t you be happy?’ I couldn’t explain it.” Then her 40-something friend died of a heart attack compounding her heartache, “That was eye opening.” Hoping to divert her despair, she talked to her rheumatologist and was cleared to hike the Appalachian Trail.

After extensive research, in 2008 and again in 2009, she hiked hundreds of miles but didn’t finish the Trail. Not meeting her goal intensified the depression. She saw a psychologist who convinced her it was not only healthy but time to find a puppy for emotional support – she’d lost her beloved 16-year-old Dal, Harrison, who’d been a college graduation present from her family. Hesitantly, she got another Dal and named her Eva.

A year later she was still lost. That’s when Elliot-Johnson introduced her to a special pup who had show potential, and she took him home. Monson, named for the last Maine town on the Appalachian Trail, began competing in Conformation and a variety of AKC sports including Agility, Rally, Obedience, and has a Road Dog Title and Coaching Certificate.

She believes Monson came into her life to introduce her to this rewarding therapy work. “It’s helped with my depression and in keeping things in perspective.” Her health scare and fear of dying stole precious years from her. She wanted a bigger purpose and to give back – and Monson’s been instrumental in that plan. “I don’t know where I’d be without my dog,” she said. “If I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t have this amazing journey in my life. I’m so grateful to him.”

Of late, Monson stays busy learning stunts, tricks, playing with Eva, and now Zazzy, a ten-month-old Dal who MacWilliams co-owns and hopes to breed with Monson’s frozen sperm. The charming and popular ACE winner stays in touch with his fans during the pandemic by posting good thoughts on his social media. Check him out at facebook.com/wagsforlove/ and instagram.com/p/B_it4sTpzn8/?bbclztnadj.

Note: In addition to the ACE medallion, she won $1,000 for a pet-charity. MacWilliams chose Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance for their dogs. Eukanuba Dog Food contributed a year of their premium food. She donated this to Backpacks for Homeless Dogs, a project of the Maine Homeless Veteran’s Alliance.