Chopper the Biker Dog, San Diego’s Beloved Celebrity

If you live in the San Diego vicinity, no doubt at some point you’ve seen a little Boston Terrier dressed up as a biker in a black leather vest, biker goggles, sporting a “doo rag”, bandana around his neck, and riding a miniature motorcycle that looks like a pint-sized Harley Davidson. He’s always with his “dad”, Mark Shaffer, a man with a heart so big, and so kind, one wonders if he wasn’t born with two. Mark and his dog, Chopper, define the term “earth angel.” They do more good for people in one year than most people do in a lifetime.

Mark and Chopper’s story began eight years ago, when Mark acquired him as a three-month-old puppy. A year before, Mark had lost his first Boston Terrier, Bandit, to cancer. Losing Bandit, who had been his biker buddy, hit him hard. Once he healed, Chopper came into his life. Though Chopper was a cute little tike, Mark wasn’t sure if he would take to the miniature motorcycle that Bandit used to ride. A month later, a local organization called The Nice Guys, invited Mark and Chopper to their annual Christmas party where they give out gifts and food to people in need. Mark used to attend every year with Bandit. He had no idea how Chopper would react to the bike, if he would even get on it.

“I took Chopper and the little motorcycle, the goggles and his little Harley T-shirt, put him on the motorcycle and he rode that little motorcycle just like he knew what to do,” Mark remembers. “It was his first time and he never tried to hop off. Who knows, maybe Bandit’s spirit was riding with him.”

Mark knew then and there that he and Chopper could continue what he started with Bandit.

Initially, Chopper rode Bandit’s bike, then some fans from Florida came to town and asked to meet Chopper. The husband was an engineer and wanted to create a new bike, just for Chopper. The man returned home, bought a little bike, took it apart and rebuilt it to look like Mark’s Harley, all at his own expense. He customized the paint, added LED lights, a sophisticated remote-control system, and better steering control. It was going to cost $800 to ship the bike to San Diego. Not to be deterred, Mark and the engineer raised the funds online to pay the cost.

The two pals attend about a dozen fundraising events a year to support their favorite charities. Events like the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, the Breast Cancer Walk, Tip a Cop, the Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run, where cops carry a torch from Chula Vista to Los Angeles, the Law Enforcement Teddy Bear Drive for Rady Children’s Hospital, and the Hornblower Cruise to help raise money and blankets for the Helen Woodward Animal Shelter.  That sounds like a lot, but that’s just a part of what they do. When they’re not attending events, they make about 30 visits annually to patients in local hospitals, nursing homes, memory care centers and hospice, including visits to our local veterans. As a certified therapy dog, Chopper brings smiles to patients’ faces when he rides his mini motorcycle into their rooms, dressed in his leather duds. Once the chuckles die down, he gets onto the patients’ beds, curls up and snuggles with them, imbuing them with therapeutic doggie love.

Chopper has fans everywhere, especially in the law enforcement community. Check out the video of the day Chopper got stopped by a San Diego policeman here. The two buddies have an affinity for law enforcement and the military; if Mark hears about a need, he and Chopper make it a point to visit before anyone asks. One particular law enforcement officer story stands out in Mark’s memory.

“A deputy sheriff and his wife from Oregon were vacationing in Mexico when they stepped out of their hotel and were run over by a car,” Mark says. “When the police arrived, the wife was in such bad shape they covered her with a sheet, signifying she was dead. They soon discovered she was alive, barely. The couple was transported to a trauma unit in San Diego.”

As soon as Mark learned of the tragedy by the Eugene Sheriff’s Department, Mark scheduled his first visit. The husband had already been air-lifted back to Eugene, while the wife stayed hospitalized in San Diego. Chopper and Mark began visiting her as often as possible, Chopper curling up next to her on the bed. When they arrived for their second visit, the woman’s brother met them in the hospital lobby and told Mark that she suffered so much brain damage that she wouldn’t remember them when they entered the room. However, when Chopper rolled in on his motorcycle, the woman pulled herself up off her pillow and said, “Chopper, buddy!”

“All her relatives in the room broke out in tears, because it proved that her brain was healing and her cognition was coming back. Chopper gave them hope that she would recover,” he says.

The day Mark learned that the wife was going home, he called San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who gave her blessing to do whatever Mark planned to help support the Deputy’s wife. Mark arranged to have six San Diego police officers and two California Highway Patrol officers, escort her from her hospital room to the waiting ambulance. Once secured inside, the Highway Patrol escorted the ambulance to the airport with their lights going all the way.

“We wanted her and her family to leave San Diego with ‘respect’ and something positive,” Mark says. “She was life flighted home with doctors on board.”

Two years later Mark and Chopper took a trip up the coastline, stopping to visit patients in memory care centers, hospitals, veterans, police officers and nursing homes along the way. The trip ended in Eugene, Oregon where after two years, he and Chopper were reunited over dinner with the now retired deputy sheriff, his wife and their family.

“It was a very emotional reunion,” Mark recalls.

Then he received a call from a local television station telling him that a man phoned the station because he heard that Chopper was in town and the man’s daughter wanted to meet the canine celebrity. The station directed Mark to the school where they found the entire student body waiting for them in front. He learned that about the time the deputy sheriff and his wife were injured, the girl had been given a class assignment to write about a hero, but it couldn’t be an entertainment celebrity. The girl had heard about what Chopper had been doing for the wife of their local Deputy and wrote her school paper about Chopper.

While that was one of the big ones, Mark could fill an encyclopedia with stories about what Chopper’s presence has meant to people, how his very being comforts and soothes like a balm. From hospitalized law enforcement officers injured in the line of duty, to family members in nursing homes grieving the loss of a loved one, to patients in memory care centers whose faces light up when they see the quirky little dog in biker leathers ride in on his customized motorcycle, Chopper makes an impact wherever he goes.

In San Diego, Chopper is more than a local celebrity, he has built a world-wide fandom through social media, (over 117,000 followers on Facebook and growing) and not just because he’s adorable in his biker outfit and sports a biker-dude persona. More importantly, he is known for his unflagging work ethic and the immeasurable hours of volunteering in the community, never asking for anything in return. It’s easy to get caught up in Chopper the legend. After all, he is really, really, cute and as sweet as a dog can be. Sometimes people don’t realize, or they forget that the extraordinary little dog in leather biker duds is one half of a duo. A selfless man and his selfless dog who spend their free time doing good. And if that isn’t the best example of The Goodness Principle, I don’t know what is. I’ll tell you this much, San Diego is proud to call them our own.

Want to learn more about Chopper? Be sure to visit his Facebook page here,  and his website here.

Making It Through The Night

Chris Meyer is not having a good night. Tossing and turning, reliving nightmarish flashes, sometimes even uncomfortable night sweats—all a part of the PTSD which accompanies so many returning service men and women. If left unchecked, an alarming number fall into a depression which, tragically, ends for far too many in suicide.

But Chris is fortunate. Not only is he receiving good medical attention, but he has the constant attention of Jade, his partner, confidant, and safe to say, his love. When Chris is having another debilitating nightmare, Jade is right there to wake him from his torture, to assure him everything is all right and he is safe.

MITTN ChrisYou may be wondering what would be the best way to wake a PTSD suffering person without compounding their fright. Jade has perfected the process—first she nudges Chris a few times with her nose, then her long tongue starts bathing his face. Chris wakes up quickly; the terror abated.

You see, Jade is a service dog—a loving Golden Retriever/Shepherd mix, who was painstakingly trained by Graham Bloem, founder of Shelter to Soldier. But providing care-giving dogs to veterans is only part of the Shelter to Soldier story.

MITTN Jade at the park

Graham scours the many local shelters looking for 40 – 50 pound dogs who he can determine have the temperament and intelligence to respond to training as a service dog. MITTN GrahamAfter checking them for optimal health and getting a head x-ray, many of the dogs he tests don’t make the cut. Many of those who do test well were precariously existing on the euthanasia list because no one wanted to adopt them. Graham then saves them and begins their training.

You may rightly say that this process saves two lives at once: the dog’s and the veteran’s. Win-win! But there’s more to the story.

This isn’t one of those places that just finds a dog, then a veteran, and says “Here you go!” No, Shelter to Soldier spends several thousand dollars per dog for medical care and housing during the 12 to 18 months it takes to thoroughly train them as service dogs.

The veterans go through a careful screening process as well, starting with a doctor’s recommendation to the initial telephone interviews. Then the veteran visits the training facility to see how they interact with dogs—and vice versa. When Graham makes a suitable match, he trains the dog to be sensitive to those issues which plague the veteran.

According to 1st Sgt. Tomas Mondares, his dog Sandy (a female Shepherd/Labrador mix), senses when he gets anxious from seeing shadows after dark. Sometimes he gets easily irritated. That’s when she will side up next to him, ‘herding’ him away from the stimulus and de-escalating the situation. It’s like a friend reminding him that “it’s OK Tomas —just chill”.

MITTN Tomas & Sandy gradBut the training isn’t just for the dogs. No, Graham requires that the veteran actively participate in the training a couple of times a week over a period of months. That way the veteran becomes certified as a dog handler, and the dog intuitively learns about the needs of the veteran. At the end of training there is a graduation ceremony for each veteran and dog, concluding with certificates of completion and competency.

For Chris Meyer, knowing that Jade senses when he is in dire need, and has been taught to push a button to administer medication provides great peace of mind. For Tomas Mondares, who received severe injuries to his back and hip during a deployment, having Sandy help him get up when he can’t on his own is crucial.

Graham served a stint in a pet nutrition store, and then as a dog trainer at a large animal shelter. That’s when he discovered his innate talent for connecting with dogs and training them to be caregivers, and Shelter to Soldier began as a non-profit 2012. To date they have placed nine dogs with veterans, with eight more dogs now in training.

According to Graham’s wife, Kyrie, who takes care of the operating details of the organization, their objective is to train 20 dogs at a time. Clearly there’s a huge need; in fact there’s so many veterans in need of service dogs that they can’t keep up. Until they can get into a larger facility they can’t reach that twenty-in-training goal.

MITTN Jade Chris GradShelter to Soldier calls San Diego County home, where 1.2 million active duty, veterans and families of veterans live. Of the active and veteran ranks, a vast number suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) due to their time in combat zones. Shelter to Soldier does not to treat the veterans—that’s left to the medical institutions. Graham’s approach focuses on preparing the dogs to perform care-giving functions that aid each veteran. He understands that dogs are non-judgmental and give unconditional love; the perfect candidates for the job.

After each dog has been trained and goes home with the veteran, the veteran can call Graham anytime with questions and give him an update on how they’re doing. Shelter to Soldier holds events and get-togethers for the veterans and dogs, as well as refresher courses and further training anytime a need arises.

MITTN Sandy & Tomas 2Does it work? Before he entered the program Tomas Mondares felt he was in a dark place, and just wanted to stay shut in by himself. Now with Sandy he feels so much better that they go out more often, enjoying life together. In fact, he claims that without Graham and Sandy, he would be in a much darker place—or maybe not here at all.

Chris Meyer looked into getting  a service dog from five other programs before settling on Shelter to Soldier. He found StS to be the only one that completely vetted each veteran and each dog’s capabilities to provide the best possible fit. As Chris continues in his rehabilitation, he says he wants to give back to Graham and do some volunteer work with the organization.

How did Graham Bloem decide on this path? Is he a veteran? Is he from a military family? Neither. He was born in South Africa, and immigrated to the US through Canada, later becoming a US citizen. He has never been in the military. He did, however, come to realize that he was really good at training dogs. With all the current and former military in the county having needs, his destiny was obvious.

Graham also runs West Coast K9, a professional dog training business to pay some bills, but the non-profit Shelter to Soldier operation is a labor of love and charity. The challenge to the Board of Directors is how to expand the operation to train more dogs, necessitating a larger facility.

Saving dogs, helping veterans, by someone who immigrated here—how’s that for goodness personified?

MITTN Jade

Tomas says that “family” is defined by love, not necessarily by blood. Using that criteria, then it is safe to say that Sandy is definitely family to Tomas, as Jade is to Chris. The unconditional love these family members give to their human counterparts is their own Goodness Principle.

You can learn more about Shelter to Soldier here.

Knitted Knockers to the Rescue

If the title of this post made you smile, it should, because it’s about a very cool enterprise that is improving the lives of thousands of women. KnittersWomen like Ruthie in Vancouver, Washington who underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer in May 2014. Six weeks after her surgery she began seven weeks of radiation, followed by chemotherapy for one year. Yes, she lost her hair and eyelashes, as is typical with chemo, but it saved her life. Like most women who undergo a mastectomy she received a prescription for two prosthesis. While she was happy to have them she says she immediately noticed how heavy they were, and hot when she wore them. She accepted that would be the burden she would bear for getting a second chance at life. Then, a friend told her about Knitted Knockers. She went onto their website and found that they were available for free. That’s when her life changed.

“The Knitted Knockers arrived fairly quickly,” she says, “and they are a dream to wear. They are light and give a woman the curves that she should have. They’re filled with yarn. I wear them inside my regular bra and my look is quite natural. It is pretty emotional when realizing that some woman made these for me.” Ruthie says that she especially appreciates how the organization is helping countless women regain their feminine looks and giving them peace.

Barbara Demorset - Knitted Knockers

So who are these Knitted Knockers folks giving breast cancer survivors their dignity back? Barbara Demorest runs the organization. They have one function – to provide special, handmade breast prosthesis for women who have undergone mastectomies. Their mission is one near and dear to Barb’s heart. In 2011 she was told the dreaded news that she had breast cancer and would have one of the 50,000 mastectomies performed every year. Like many who undergo a mastectomy she didn’t know what to do, how to dress to look “normal” so she could return to work. When she learned that she couldn’t put anything on her scar for six weeks post surgery, she cried for the first time. The following week at her doctor’s office she perused a brochure for a silicone prosthesis. When her doctor walked in and saw her reading the brochure he told her that most women don’t like them due to their heavy weight, expense and how hot they feel. Asking her if she knew how to knit, the good doctor showed her a photo of a “knitted knocker” and a website where she could get a pattern. Barb contacted a friend who was a knitter and asked her if she would make her one. The following Sunday her friend handed her a Victoria’s Secret shopping bag; Barb raced into the church bathroom and put one in her bra. She remembers the moment well.

“It was fabulous! It was light, pretty, soft and fit my own bra perfectly. I knew right then that I wanted to make these available to other women going through the same situation.”

Barb immediately sought out the young woman in Maine who had named them after making some for herself, to find out if she could use the name and share the knockers freely with others. The young woman was thrilled to pass the baton. From that seminal moment Knittedknockers.org was born. Barb began simultaneously reaching out to women who needed them and to knitters to make them. Her mission mushroomed. These days 130 groups in 49 states and nine countries are registered with Knitted Knockers, Knitted Knocker volunteersproviding free Knitted Knockers to any woman who needs them. She isn’t sure exactly how many have been distributed because they provide to the groups who in turn knits for their own communities, but figures it’s around 20,000 Knitted Knockers to date. She does know that their pattern has been downloaded off the website over 100,000 times and that the videos have been viewed over 98,000, so probably more, a lot more. Each week Barb and her helpers meet in Bellingham, Washington to stuff, process and fill the week’s orders that come in off of the website. As of this juncture they’re sending out about 100 orders per week, though some weeks they’ve processed as many as 200 orders, and one week they processed 480.

No doubt you’re wondering how do people who need them, and people who want to make them, find out about the organization. Barb works with many physicians across the country, providing brochures and sample knockers free of charge so they can do for their patients what her own good doctor did for her. As for the knitters? Well, they’re like all good people everywhere. Once a few in the knitting community found out about it, word spread and it keeps spreading. Knocker Knitters continually register on their provider directory, happy to a breast cancer survivor and spread a little goodness.

Want to learn more about KnittedKnockers? Visit the website or you can watch this short video that ran on Business Insider. It’s been viewed over 900,000 times.

 

How Romeo Gave Lee Her Spirit Back

A happy, talkative boy
A happy, talkative boy

Lee Fulbright suffered a double whammy in 2012. She lost both her husband and her sister in one year. For a long, dark time it took everything she had to get up each day and simply live. It was just her and Baby Rae, her 13 year old cattle dog.

The following year, as she slowly adjusted to a new life she read an article in a small newspaper about a local San Diego physical therapist, Trish Penick, who specialized in physical therapy for dogs. Trish used water therapy to help dogs recover from surgery and stroke paralysis. The swimming pool therapy also provided pain relief to dogs suffering from arthritis whose joints throbbed when they walked on cement or trails. She read how once in the pool those pups were soothed by warm water as they played, weightless in the water; all while getting much-needed exercise. Reading further Lee learned that Trish was losing access to a donated private pool and was looking for another centrally located San Diego pool as soon as possible. Lee vividly remembers the thoughts that raced through her head.

“I was reading this and thinking, I love dogs and I have a pool. I’m in the city, on Point Loma. And it’s just me and Baby Rae now–those babies can yip and play and get worked on all they want– I’ve no problem with dog “singing.” I have a pool with two shallow areas for hands-on procedures, with a decent-sized length in-between for laps.”

She quickly realized that her pool could work. She contacted Trish and invited her to take a look. It turned out that Trish lived just blocks away. Trish and her yellow lab, Tori, came right over. As Lee likes to say, the rest is history. Two plus years later worth of history. Lee says that some weeks she has counted as many as forty dogs in the pool. Dogs whose hind ends have given out, who’ve had strokes, who’ve recently had knee or hip surgeries, or any kind of surgery really, who’re recovering from car accident injuries, who are overweight or whose human parents can’t exercise them for one reason or another, or are debilitated rescue dogs and need to be built back up so they can be adopted out. Good story, right? Oh, but it gets better. Here’s where the silver lining of this story emerges.

The Southern California German Shepherd Rescue has been one of Trish’s charities; she has taken on some of their most hopeless-seeming cases pro bono, Romeo was one of them. Lee recalls the day she met with him with precision clarity.

“He was approximately 10-11years old, a HUGE German shepherd with an un-German shepherd, bear-like head, hair sticking straight out all around, like a halo,” Lee says. “He was funny-looking, oh, but such intelligence in those brown eyes. A very tall dog, but completely emaciated, with a thin, dry coat, and sores all over any visible skin.”

Romeo couldn’t walk on his own; his back legs were paralyzed. He was found in some bushes and taken to Southern California German Shepherd Rescue, who cleaned him up, and got a medical done on him. His hips were deemed “gone”; he needed surgery, but at 30 pounds underweight, he was too debilitated to undergo, much less survive surgery. The veterinarian treated his sores, recommended a special protein diet to put weight on his emaciated frame and physical therapy to rebuild and strengthen muscle. Sounds pretty grim, huh? Seeing him was worse.

“I about died when I first laid eyes on him. He was so, so thin and dependent. His angel of a foster mom managed him with the aid of special rear-end harness that allowed him to move his front legs while she held up his hind end. The second thing, after his shocking condition, that set Romeo apart was his personality. Sweetest, gentlest dog ever. And the most vocal. But he didn’t bark, he “talked.” Almost constantly. He talked even while swimming (Romeo learned to swim in about ten minutes). He loved the warm water. He talked and talked and talked. Eventually, he did wheelies. He fetched toys. He did laps. He stretched those front limbs and paddled like crazy, and he was beautiful–and before we knew it– this was about three sessions out– his back limbs fluttered. And he talked some more. Long story short, because Romeo’s rehab was not an immediate thing– it took a few months– Romeo was ready for his first surgery (a very expensive surgery paid for by German Shepherd Rescue).”

Lee1
Lee says that the surgery was successful, relieving Romeo of pain on dry land, giving him some mobility on the ground, under his own steam. Who could not love a dog like that? His foster mom officially adopted him, and for more than a year he lived the good life, sheltered and pampered, swimming in Lee’s pool for exercise, and, she says, always talking. He was lucky. Instead of dying behind some bush on the side of the road, Romeo died of natural causes in his sleep, loved and pain-free. Lee will never forget him.

“I still get teary-eyed thinking of him. All he’d been through, and yet he never lost his amazingly beautiful spirit. In many ways, because of the journey I’d been on, of recovery from care-giving and loss, it was Romeo who first made my heart soar again. Because he was majestic. And he was magic. And he’d been down, but was starting over, getting a new life, and it seemed he understood he’d been given another chance. I’d watch him and think anything was possible, because the impossible–his healing– was happening right in front of us.”

The very same can be said for Lee Fulbright. From a dark place full of grief, through the selfless, simple act of providing her pool for canine physical therapy, she found healing and a renewed spirit.

To learn more about Trish’s work at Cutting Edge K-9 Rehab, please visit her website http://www.cuttingedgek9.com/about/about.php