Marvelous Marvin: Remembering a National Pet Therapy Dog of the Year
Megan Levasseur with Marvin. (ZT Pet News photo courtesy of Lisa Levasseur.)
Riverside, R.I. – His human friends will never forget “Marvelous Marvin,” the gentle black Lab with a lame leg and stout faith in mankind, who touched countless hearts with his story about second chances.
From Shelter Dog to Celebrated Pet Therapy Dog
Marvin arrived at the Rhode Island SPCA as one of the dogs nobody wanted, according to Dr. E.J. Finocchio, SPCA president. “He came close to being euthanized.” Luckily, Finocchio himself adopted Marvin on Thanksgiving Day 2002 and gave him a mission. Marvin became the SPCA’s mascot and unofficial ambassador for pets waiting in shelters for someone to love.
With Finocchio’s coaching, Marvin went on to become a registered Delta Society therapy dog and was named National Pet Therapy Dog of the Year, appearing on television and even meeting Hillary Clinton. Throughout his career, Marvin visited more than 100 schools, libraries, hospitals and nursing homes.
At Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., Marvin visited every month and did tricks for the children, said Kelsey Hobbs, child life specialist. “He put a smile on their faces,” she remembers, by playing catch or fetch with a Teddy Bear or a ball.
But Marvin and Finocchio also brought a serious message about not trusting strangers. “Dr. Finocchio would put a treat on top of Marvin’s paw and say, ‘Don’t eat it until I say it’s ok,’” Hobbs recalls. Then the children would try to convince Marvin to eat the treat, but Marvin wouldn’t touch it until Dr. Finocchio spoke—to show them Marvin wouldn’t do what strangers told him, and they shouldn’t, either.
And once a month for the last five years, Marvin visited sick and disabled residents at Providence, R.I.’s Bannister House, serving those with medical needs. According to Linda Muller, Bannister House’s activities director, Marvin’s presence brought back “a flood of memories” for many residents.
“You never know who it’s going to touch,” Muller said. Marvin even helped an Alzheimer’s patient who had lost speech to talk again. “She reached out her hand to Marvin and said, ‘Dog.’” The woman had not spoken in years.
Last month, some of the Bannister House residents returned the favor, paying a call to the SPCA to see Marvin when he was becoming too sick to travel. “They knew he was not going to be able to visit,” Muller said.
A Special Bond
“He was more than a dog,” said Lisa Levasseur, SPCA staff member. Marvin had a way that brought hurt people “out of their shells,” she said.
After Levasseur’s daughter, Megan, was diagnosed with autism, doctors said Megan would never speak. They tried horseback riding and other therapy, but nothing worked.
Then Marvin stepped up.
One day, Levasseur returned from walking the dogs and found Marvin lying on the floor and Megan, then 4, sitting up against him.
“Dog’s downstairs,” Megan said, to her mother’s amazement. That was her first sentence, Levasseur said. Megan, 13 today, now attends middle school in a regular education class with support from a special education plan. “We’ve grown so much to love this dog,” Levasseur said.
Yet Marvin was left at the shelter twice before Finocchio adopted him. The original owner surrendered Marvin because he could no longer care for a dog, then the second owner rejected him because he was lame—walking on three legs because of a previous car accident.
“He said the lame leg wouldn’t be a problem, but then he changed his mind,” Levasseur recalls. After two owners had left him at the shelter, Marvin “had two strikes against him,” Finocchio said. “But he never gave up hope.”
After adopting him, Finocchio took Marvin home into a household filled with 16 people, where he fit right in. “It was like he had been there 10 years,” Finocchio said. His wife Marie and Marvin became instant best friends.
Everyone hoped Marvin would go on as SPCA mascot for many years. But last March, doctors found a tumor on his spleen. At first the surgery seemed a success, but last fall, the cancer returned. Finocchio vowed he would not let Marvin suffer. “I’ll know when it’s time to let go,” he said, “when he doesn’t chase his tennis ball, when he doesn’t want to roll in the snow.”
Even a few weeks ago, Marvin didn’t let cancer interfere with greeting people and pets. Trotting beside his owner, the dog waited to be introduced to a visitor to the SPCA, and then offered a gentle lick on the hand. When the time seemed right, Marvin disappeared briefly. He returned with a ball in his mouth.
As long as Marvin still wanted to play, Finocchio hoped he could keep the dog going. But by mid-January, Marvin had stopped eating for a day and a half. His dog was struggling, Finocchio said.
“When the dog that protected you and watched over you for seven years no longer wakes you up—and you have to wake him up—things have changed,” he reflected. On Jan. 15, Finocchio decided it was time to let Marvin say goodbye. The 10-year-old dog died in his family’s arms.
“We had a wonderful life,” Finocchio said.
Another dog will continue Marvin’s good deeds, visit seniors in nursing homes and do tricks for children in the hospital. But there’ll never be another Marvin.
“Everybody loves their dog,” Finocchio reflects, “but he was more than a dog to me.”
To learn more about the Rhode Island SPCA, visit their website at www.rispca.com.
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