Special Olympics has been enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities since 1968. What began as a backyard summer camp has grown into a global movement with 5.4 million athletes participating in 106,000 events in 193 countries!
More than a million volunteers help ensure the games run smoothly, and not all of them are human. Many dogs accompany the athletes, families, and friends of the organization, offering services only pups can provide.
Phillips joined Special Olympics in 2015. First as a volunteer and swim coach, then as a member of the organization’s Communications and Brand Department. In her experience, many of the athletes feel more comfortable around dogs than people. They find that dogs provide a calming presence and never pass judgment.
“In the sports world dogs are really appreciated because they offer support if you are conceding a match or help you deal with a loud, crowded arena,” Phillips says. “Plus, you want to do well and dogs help you relax before the big race or game or whatever the case may be.”
Some competitors have highly trained service dogs that assist them during events as well as in their daily lives. Genuine service dogs must perform specific tasks related to the owner’s disability.
Stephanie Stein’s Shih Tzu, Riley acts as her service dog. Stein is a member of the Maryland Special Olympics Baltimore County Swimming Team, and also competes in soccer, bowling, bocce ball, and snowshoeing.
“I can take him everywhere, including Special Olympics stuff,” she says. “He’s kind of like our Special Olympics mascot for the swimming team.”
It is also quite common to find certified therapy dogs at competitions. These outgoing pups are trained to offer stress relief to anyone and everyone in need. Spending time with a therapy dog has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce anxiety, and stimulate the release of feel-good hormones.
Occasionally dogs come along to provide entertainment and athletic inspiration. The Canine Stars Stunt Dog show delighted onlookers at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2019 Special Olympics Illinois State Summer Games.
Not only are these pups super talented, they are also a menagerie of mixed breeds rescued from shelters across the country. Their show is a reminder of how much we can all achieve with a little support and encouragement.
Not all of the canine heroes involved with Special Olympics have specialized training. Some are simply beloved family pets and devoted friends. However, these dogs still have an important role to play.
In a recent virtual chat session, Special Olympics Maryland athlete, Todd Polleyn spoke fondly of his 12-year-old rescue pooch, Gizmo.
“My favorite thing is when Gizmo sleeps in my bed. He takes heart meds just like me.”
Athlete Victoria has been especially anxious since the current health crisis temporarily shut down all Special Olympics events. Her dog Rose, a German Shepherd/Rottweiler mix is not a therapy dog. Yet somehow she has an innate ability to sense when Victoria is in distress.
“Rose calms Victoria’s anxiety, especially with this current self isolation,” Victoria’s mother, Jaqueline McDonald Bovay tells iHeartDogs.
No matter their level of training, the dogs of Special Olympics offer love and affirmation to the athletes and their supporters. That must be why they fit in so well with an organization devoted to friendship and inclusivity.