Therapy dog takes final ride on motorcycle at Alliance Community Hospital
By Shannon Harsh, The Review, Published August 7, 2013
The tiny long-haired Chihuahua who rode his remote-controlled Harley into celebrity took his final turn on the bike Monday morning. After nine years, Bear, the "Dog on a Hog," has retired from riding his bike for the amusement of patients, visitors and staff at Alliance Community Hospital (ACH).
"Bear is getting older now," owner Ruth DeFranco said of the dog who will turn 13 in January. "He has a weak back leg, and I noticed when he rides, you can kind of see his leg go down. He used to sit up and ride, and now he kind of leans over.
"He's just tired. He needs to just be in the stroller and have a good time," she said.
Bear has had quite a ride over the past nine years, which has included appearances on Fox 8 news in Cleveland, ESPN, CNN and The Montel Williams Show and has taken him to New York, Canada, Kentucky and all over Ohio. The little dog even made appearances in two published books and won some meaningful awards for his therapy dog work.
"I was floored with how many people wanted to see Bear," DeFranco said of her little star.
DeFranco and Bear were one of the first therapy dog teams to walk the halls of ACH. DeFranco dressed the dog in Harley clothes and her dad, Dean Baker, carried him around to visit with patients. It was her son, Ryan Schafer, who first suggested she teach the dog to ride a small motorcycle.
A year after Schafer died while serving his country, DeFranco said she spotted a remote-controlled motorcycle at the store and decided to try to make her son's idea come to life. She altered the bike with training wheels and a special soft seat and began using cheese to train the then-3-year-old Bear, and the rest is history.
Michele Quinn, director of Volunteer Services at ACH, said Bear has been a big part of the Paws and Reflect therapy dog program, which started in 2002.
"When he rides his motorcycle, it's a big attraction. It really lights people's faces up," she said. "Everybody has fond memories of what he brought to the hospital, to the patients and colleagues."
Quinn said the crowd that gathered to watch his final ride Monday was proof of Bear's popularity.
Though he will no longer be riding his motorcycle, Bear will continue his job of being a therapy dog -- something he has done since he was 1 year old and still very much enjoys. The pair visit at ACH, Auburn Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation in Damascus and several schools for handicapped children and participate in Rodman Public Library's Tales for Tails program.
DeFranco said in addition to offering a ray of sunshine to others, Bear has been a source of therapy for herself. She said the little dog has been there through the most difficult parts of her life -- especially helping her get through the loss of her only child.
"Bear has meant to me unconditional love. I know if I'm feeling bad, Bear's there for me. I have met so many great people through Bear, and I have seen how people respond to him. When we come to the hospital, you can see people just lift up, and for a minute they're happy; it's a nice diversion," she said. "For me, he saved my life. He got me going again and made me realize that life gives you hills, and you either climb it and go on or you stay at the bottom. That's all you can do."
One of those hills was the loss of her father in 2006 -- the man who first controlled Bear's Harley. DeFranco choose Bear's final ride to occur on Monday because it would have been Baker's 95th birthday.
Just as Bear has honored the memory of DeFranco's son and father, so will his successor, Ryley Dean, a 3-year-old Chihuahua who was named after them. The great-nephew of Bear, the young dog, who DeFranco said has a similar temperament and personality to Bear, immediately took to the motorcycle. Ryley will continue the motorcycle tradition going forward, sporting a tiny biker jacket and hat and riding through the same halls Bear has owned for nearly a decade. "Hopefully Ryley will ride into people's hearts, too," DeFranco said.
For more information about Bear, visit www.dogonahog.org.