A breeder looking for his next show dog in Southwest Washington found what seemed like the perfect puppy online. A purebred English labrador lived in Poland. Further research revealed a large pedigree, a perfect body and that elusive “it” quality.
He bought it for $10,000.
He arrived at Portland International Airport. He took it and did a thorough examination at home. He believed that one day he could win a prize at the famous Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
“He was something else,” said Rebecca Bloom, owner of Secret Garden Labradors in Battleground. “He needed a flashy name, something royal, something the judges would remember.”
He called him Duke.
And then, while in the ring at a big dog show in Portland, it all fell apart.
“The judge went to pat Duke on the back,” Bloom said, “just like the judge does when he checks the dog. Duke laid on his back, rolled over and asked the judge to pet him.
Nothing came easy for the dog who came to America with such a big heart.
Blum and his team tried to teach Duke not to move when the referee touched him. He lay down again. And again. No amount of training would change that. Still, Bloom loved him, calling him a sweet boy. She didn’t need a pet, but she wanted Duke to have a good and useful life.
She called her friend, Lindsay Chavez, to tell her she was the perfect dog for her program. Chavez is the founder, executive director and trainer of Healing Hounds, a Portland organization that provides service dogs to clients. Chavez and his team tried their best, but Duke was washed out there as well.
“My dogs are trained to cooperate with a person on individual goals and tasks,” Chavez said. “Duke wanted to love and be loved by everyone. I didn’t know what to do with him.”
The first chance is gone.
Second chance, gone.
It was Danielle Santilli In 2015, the family’s beloved dachshund poodle, “Frankie,” who volunteered at Healing Hounds, passed away. Her daughter and son, then 9 and 5, wanted their mother to get another dog, but Santilli didn’t feel emotionally ready.
One day, her nephew’s friend came home with a puppy she had raised as a Healing Hounds volunteer. She thought it was the perfect way to bring a dog home on a very emotional note. She was trained by Chavez, earned her certification, and brought home her first dog.
“Our job was to get a dog used to being around people and learning how to socialize,” said Santilli, child welfare certification supervisor at the North Clackamas Branch of the Oregon Department of Human Services.
“Where we go, the dog has gone,” he said. “A grocery store, a church, you name it. The dog learned how to behave. Then the dog would come back Healing Hounds must be trained and eventually matched with the client.”
By 2020, Santilli had socialized six dogs, all of whom became successful service dogs. During a visit to Healing Hounds that year, she learned about Duke, who described newcomer Chavez as too kind to focus. Santilli volunteered to see what he could do with it at his home.
“We kept working with him and he slowly became a good guy,” Santilli said. “Then we brought him back to the Healing Hounds program for intensive training.”
Months later, Santilli and her children decided to check on Duke while he was working at the park with all the trainers and their dogs. The animals learn to ignore all stimuli – other dogs, voices, birds – and focus only on the needs of the trainer, as they should do when they are full-fledged service dogs.
“When Duke saw us, he couldn’t help himself,” Santilli said. “He wanted to be with us. Forget the training.”
It was Duke’s third and final chance.
No show dog.
No service dog.
Sometimes elaborate plans, detailed predictions and sure things just don’t happen. At that moment, if you are lucky, the mystery that is the journey of life opens up a new path every now and then.
This happened with Santilli.
It was going to happen with Duke.
Santilli brought the dog home to live with his family.
Santilli, 48, once wanted to be a police officer, but realized he wanted to focus on people before the police got involved, not when they were in trouble.
She worked with nonprofits and enjoyed the work, but wanted to make a bigger impact. She decided to focus on children and their families and began working for the Oregon Department of Human Services, where she was assigned to the permanency division, which finds foster homes when children are removed from the home.
Now in his 17th year with the agency, Santilli is based in North Clackamas County, where he works as a certification supervisor overseeing a countywide caseworker team.
“It’s hard to believe what people do to other people,” Santilli said. “What we see, hear, and have to process.”
One night in 2020, while on a house call, Santilli received a report of a boy who had run away from his care. Authorities found him and took him to the Clackamas DHS office. They needed someone to talk to the guy, and that fell to Santilli.
On a whim, he decided to hire Duke. He watched as the Duke walked quietly and slowly towards the boy. The boy told him he hadn’t petted a dog in years and asked if he could touch Duke. Santilli said yes. Duke loved the attention and leaned closer, resting his head on the boy’s lap.
“The guy and I talked for at least an hour,” Santilli said. “Duke comforted her the whole time. Finally, the boy asked if he could come to see the Duke again. It was an automatic yes.”
That encounter helped Santilli realize the parallels between his work and that of a service dog. Choosing the right dog for a person in need was like choosing the right foster family for a child with no home to go to.
He asked the district manager what he thought about using Duke as a therapy dog to help children and case workers in Clackamas and Oregon City. His boss rejected him. In January 2022, it got a new boss.
“He had met Duke at several public events,” Santilli said. “And we talked about my baby growing up under frequent clinical supervision.”
He made his point again.
Santilli’s boss told him to make a formal proposal for the pilot program.
“I listed all my accreditations and then researched which agencies in Oregon use assistance dogs,” Santilli said. “I found several district attorney’s offices, but no one at the Oregon Department of Human Services had a dog.”
The pilot was so successful that the Duke therapy program is now an official part of the Oregon Department of Human Services.
“It’s all volunteer,” Santilli said. “I pay for everything. I still work full time. It’s just an addition.”
Duke comes with Santilli to the North Clackamas branch, as well as the satellite office in Oregon City, where he meets with children, caseworkers and their families. He communicates only with people who are willing to do so.
“A little boy had a difficult time with his parents,” Santilli said. “Duke just stuck with it. It was a beautiful moment to watch. When he goes home, he is a normal dog. This means that he cannot climb on the furniture.”
On average, Duke visits more than 600 people a month.
“He has the perfect job,” Santilli said. “He’s very social.”
Thalia Gomez, a child protective services worker, often visits with Duke.
Gomez, 29, asked: ‘Who doesn’t love to pet a dog? Can we trust a person when he says ‘love’? Duke offers unconditional love. Such love softens a hard heart.”
She also watched him work with children.
“He doesn’t judge,” she said. “He’s not there to ask questions. As workers, we seek answers or try to comfort in a different way. Duke has none of that. It’s just there.”
Andrea Andraede, a 29-year-old business worker, recently spent time with Duke.
“I had to put two kids in custody this week,” she said. “It was a difficult week for me. Seeing Duke makes me feel better. His love for me makes me feel like I can be myself again. Call it self-care.”
Duke is often found in the Trauma Room.
“This is the room where we talk to the kids,” Santilli said. “During the interview, the child may be shy to speak. But sitting with Duke makes them less traumatized by what’s going on in their lives.
Duke’s life was not what anyone expected. He never won a show dog medal to wear around his neck. But he wears an official Oregon Department of Human Services badge.
He has a photo.
And his name.
Duke of Santilli.
Just a dog with a big heart.
— Tom Hallman Jr. 503-221-8224; firstname.lastname@example.org; @thallmanjr
This article is sponsored by our partner Pacific Source Here is Oregon. Journalism is produced independently by members of The Oregonian/OregonLive newsroom.