Anyone who’s ever met her knows Sienna Temple is a star, but Sunday, it was made official. The Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association inducted Sienna, a 7 1/2-year-old golden retriever, into the Tennessee Animal Hall of Fame.Dr. J. Gordon West, of Parkway Animal Clinic, Sienna’s veterinarian since she was 5 weeks old, nominated her for the award. “You have to appreciate Sienna’s history. She’s a three-legged dog. By all rights, she shouldn’t be here,” West says. “That’s why so many of us feel she’s here for a reason.”
Injured at birth
Sienna was one of nine golden retrievers born in Hopkinsville, Ky. on Sept. 18, 1998. When Sienna was born, her mother, possibly mistaking it for an umbilical cord, chewed off Sienna’s right front leg.
Sienna’s first miracle happened before any human even knew she existed. West says based on her injury, he would have expected Sienna to bleed to death within a few minutes. When someone finally found Sienna, the stump where her leg had been had only a few drops of blood coming from it.
Because there were nine puppies and Sienna was permanently injured and could not be sold with her siblings, euthanasia seemed her obvious end. But her owner carried her around in a Longaberger basket with some of the other puppies, putting off euthanasia in hopes that someone would take pity on the little three-legged dog and take her in.
Kathy Temple will never forget the first time she saw Sienna. “I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I don’t need a dog,'” Temple remembers. “I had two geriatric cats, 15 and 16 (years old.)”
It wasn’t love-at-first-sight for Temple. She was plagued by images of the pup chasing her cats, chewing on their tails, making the last part of their lives anything but peaceful. But for Sienna, the attraction was instant. “She saw me and just started wagging that little tail,” Temple says.
Temple is the systemwide teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing at Fort Campbell Schools. The puppies’ owner kept bringing the pups around school, working on Temple’s resolve. Finally, Temple agreed that if no one else would take Sienna, she would. She thinks the owner stopped looking for another home the day she said she’d be the home of last resort. “She was meant to be mine,” Temple says.
Sienna was the first dog Temple had in her adult life, but Temple wasted no time wondering what to do with the pup. When Sienna was just 3 months old, Temple enrolled her in puppy kindergarten. They followed that with Clarksville Kennel Club’s basic obedience course when Sienna was 6 months old. Sienna was awarded her American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Certificate when she was 8 months old. Temple was thrilled at Sienna’s success and made big plans for the dog.
Disappointed but determined
“When she was young, she thrived at obedience, and I thought I could do that with her,” Temple says. The AKC has national championships in obedience, agility and conformation, which is the dog’s physical adherence to the standard for its breed. Because of her disability, Sienna could never compete in conformation. Agility, with its high-flying leaps and other acrobatic maneuvers, would be a stretch, but Sienna was a perfect choice for obedience competitions.
Or so they thought. “I found out the AKC would not allow her to do it because of her leg,” Temple says. Of course, to Temple, the AKC rule seemed ridiculous. Sienna was every bit as capable of mastering obedience commands as any four-legged dog, as she had proven again and again. But soon, Temple found another avenue for Sienna’s talents. Searching pet-related pages on the Internet, Temple came across “pet therapy,” then a foreign concept to her. The more she learned, the more it seemed pet therapy would be the perfect vocation for Sienna.
Animals involved in pet therapy often visit patients in hospitals, rehabilitation programs and nursing homes. Their presence encourages patients to interact, and may inspire them to work harder and get well faster. The warm and loving companionship of an animal can bring peace, relaxation and a break in the routine in any clinical setting.
Temple ordered a home study course from Delta Society, which was founded in 1977 with the goal of improving human health with service and therapy animals. After completing the course, Sienna took a test and became a certified Pet Partner.
In April 2001, Sienna made her first visit to Gateway Hospital. The first patient she met was an elderly man who’d had a stroke.
“I was in total awe,” Temple says. Sienna did what Temple calls the “Golden Nudge,” pushing her head under the man’s motionless hand. After many tries, Sienna had his hand flopped on top of her head.
Then time stopped. The man curled his fingers into Sienna’s fur. “His family started crying,” Temple says. “He had been totally unresponsive up to that time.”
For the past five years, since her first — wildly successful — day as a pet therapy dog, Sienna has made a stunning difference in the lives of hundreds of people. There’s the oncology patient who hadn’t spoken to anyone in three days. She wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t make eye contact. Then Sienna came into her room.
“What is this?!” she said, reaching down to stroke Sienna’s red-gold fur. After the fun visit, Sienna was walking out of the room when the woman announced, “I’m hungry.”
There’s no telling for how many people Sienna has been the turning point between a downward spiral and an uphill climb. Sandy Britt, local animal activist and volunteer, was one of those people. In the hospital after abdominal surgery, Britt was in pain, discouraged, and missing her own dogs. A visit from Sienna brightened her day and strengthened her resolve to get back home to her family.
“The level of compassion she has for people is something I could not have taught her,” Temple says about Sienna. “It’s a gift from God.”
Fans in high places
Temple is biased, for sure. She isn’t married and has no children, so Sienna is her child, she says. Since Sienna was a puppy, Temple has taken her with her everywhere that allowed dogs, and some places that didn’t. But Temple is far from alone in her opinion that Sienna is special.