Gentle giant eases vaccine anxiety, one cuddle at a time

Jessica Boyer hugs Jace the therapy dog at the 2019 ABI Conference in Portland, and the portrait of him she painted

A stocky, blond bullmastiff named Showdown Wanna Do Bad Things once ruled the local show dog circuit, winning Champion of the Rose City Classic show in 2015. Since then he’s added a few credentials to his name, now Ch. Showdown Wanna Do Bad Things TH CGC (that’s Ch for champion, TH for Therapy Dog and CGC for Canine Good Citizen). It’s a mouthful alright, but no worries, people just call him Jace. He’s the good boy who spends his days comforting the scared, visiting the lonely and cheering up many who cross his path.

Jace, now 9, makes up one half of the therapy dog team led by Angela Frome. Frome is director of operations and programs for NW Disability Support in Portland and program director for All Born (in) (ABI), an educational advocacy group for those with developmental disabilities and their families. Together Angela and Jace attend COVID-19 vaccination clinics put on by NW Disability Support, where the 140 lb. gentle giant is a calming force for anyone who needs a little help getting past their anxiety about the shot. A big furry head on someone’s lap is sometimes all it takes to put them at ease.

A woman sitting on a bench with her bullmastiff dog
Angela Frome and Jace

Angela and Jace were certified as a therapy team about three years ago after extensive training that immersed him in numerous environments.

“You go to a lot of places, elevators, being around kids, being around people in wheelchairs, on bicycles. You expose them to about every scenario they would encounter,” said Frome, adding that Jace is considered a “complex rating.” That means he’s approved to work in a variety of environments based on his mellow temperament and ability to navigate many different situations. “He is very calm and adaptable,” Frome said.

Pre-pandemic, Jace would go to work with Angela one day a week on the group’s “family drop-in day.” He was available for a pet or a cuddle, often bonding with children and adults who may not communicate verbally or who were previously uncomfortable around dogs. Angela also took Jace to visit seniors in their homes and to work conferences. Then came COVID-19, and like most of us, Jace was stuck at home. He wasn’t happy about it, Frome said.

small child cupping the face of a large bullmastiff dog
Jace and his young friend, Violeta Sarao

“For him not to be around people… it’s such a need for him,” said Frome. “He loves people. The first time I took him to a [vaccination] clinic he was so delighted to be with people. It was almost like he knows this is his job and his gift.”

Jace originally belonged to Bob Hyke, a friend of Frome’s. Hyke showed Jace at dog shows, but he also dreamed of getting involved in therapy work once Jace retired from the show circuit. Sadly, though, Hyke died before realizing that dream.

Frome has known Jace since he was a pup and took him in while Hyke’s family recovered from their loss. He’s been with her since. Frome considers their therapy work a tribute to Hyke, who shared her vision.

teenage boy sitting in a chair wearing a mask, next to dog
Cody Sullivan, youth leader with NW Disability Support, and Jace

“Jace is probably one of the most emotionally intelligent animals I’ve been around,” Frome said. “He knows if someone is worried or upset. He’ll go over and put his head on their laps. He is the icebreaker a lot of times. We’ve had people call ahead and ask if Jace could sit with them. If they want to lie down or sit on the floor, he’ll do whatever they need him to do.”

Frome always knew she’d find working with a therapy dog rewarding, but she admits to being surprised by the “incredible bond” between an animal and human. “Jace was born to serve,” she said. “That’s how he’s been his whole life, even when he was young pup. He has a soul to serve.”