Pit bulls have a reputation for being aggressive, but it's not unusual to find Elle, a 5-year-old pit bull, cuddling up to elementary school children for story time.
In fact, she does it regularly. Elle is a therapy dog at an elementary and a middle school in North Carolina. With help from her owner, Leah Brewer, 42, Elle started a reading program called “Tail Wagging Tales” to help students practice reading and strengthen confidence.
Students at Vaughan Elementary in Macon, N.C. and Chaloner Middle School in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., take turns sitting with Elle and reading out loud to her for 20 minutes. “She provides confidence for students and a comforting ear,” Brewer told TODAY.com. (No word yet on what her favorite book is.)
On Saturday, Elle's efforts earned her the honor of being named the 2013 American Hero Dog by the American Humane Association, beating out other finalists who had their own tales of heroism — like Carlos, an explosive detector dog (EDD) who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, and John D, a rescue dog who uses his scenting capabilities to detect cancer in patients.
“The point of the award show is to celebrate these dogs who really work and perform service to humans,” Dr. Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of the American Humane Association, told TODAY.com.
Elle and the other finalists were flown in style to Los Angeles alongside their owners to attend the star-studded awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Her win is a sign that misconceptions about pit bulls might be changing.
“The dog community is trying to grapple with issues around what to do with breeds that have some bad reputations, “ said Ganzert. “This is a fantastic awakening to see a pit bull win.”
The Humane Association awarded Elle the top honor after combining more than 1 million public votes with those from a panel of animal activists and celebrity judges that included Kristin Chenoweth, Candy Spelling and Miranda Lambert. Other finalists included:
- Cassidy, a three-legged dog who visits rehabilitation centers to comfort children with disabilities.
- Jingles, a guide dog who brings joy, exuberance and safe travels to her disabled owner.
- Lola, a rescued guide dog who connects her deaf owner to the surrounding world.
- K9 Lakota, who was forced into retirement after he and his accompanying officer were injured in a car accident. His story is now used to help change dog protection laws for police dogs.
- SD Bronx, who helps his 14-year-old owner battle seizures.
Saturday night’s award show was hosted by actor Joey Lawrence. The “Hero Dog Awards” will air in a 90-minute special on the Hallmark Channel on Oct. 30.