Riverton’s therapy dog in training finalist in national contest

By Sarah Elmquist Squires, Managing Editor

FREMONT COUNTY – It was in the back room of Pizza Hut when she first met his eye and held his gaze. She didn’t have a name back then, but while her brothers and sisters were tumbling, as puppies do, out of a basket and all around the PAWS’ adoption event, Aggie stood aside and watched the humans in the room. While her siblings rolled around, oblivious, little Aggie stood out. As far as therapy dogs go, that’s a good sign: A pup who watches people is sure to be a worthy candidate.

Aggie, who is a therapy dog in training in Fremont County, is one of the leading contenders in a contest for the favorite pet in the nation. And she’s bounced between the top few spots in the ranking in recent weeks, currently sitting at sixth place. Her dad, Jeff Rebitski, has pledged to share all the winnings with the nonprofit that rescued her — PAWS, as well as Lander Pet Connection. And, at $5,000, it would be an incredible boost to the organizations. 

That is, if she wins. What is needed is a swell of support from her local community to propel her through the final leg of the voting online little Aggie knows nothing about. (See side bar.)

Rebitski is a reporter for this newspaper, and his current therapy dog, Rylee, is a beloved fixture. Rebitski’s therapy dogs don’t guide him through Main Street’s businesses’ doors because he needs a crutch; rather, they serve others, from hospitals to nursing homes to preschools, sharing an important message that can’t always be relayed as easily among humans. 

You are loved, they say. 

Years ago, when Rebitski first stood at the front of a classroom as a special education teacher, he petitioned the state of Colorado to allow for a therapy dog to help the children who needed it, and he was approved. He brought Eve, his first therapy dog, to his students, and the results are remarkable. The kids responded so well he started bringing other pets, from parrots to lizards, to help them connect. One child, who had refused to speak to him as a teacher, bonded with a gecko Rebitski brought to the classroom. He started talking, for the first time, to the gecko — while his teacher stood by — telling the little lizard crawling up his arms about his family, his fears, the scary things in his life. Eventually, he made the honor roll.

Aggie is Rebitski’s fifth therapy dog. He’s worked as a law enforcement officer, a teacher, and since he first began his therapy dog program, he’s fielded a number of emergency calls. One of the first stands out. His colleagues from the police department called one night and told him of the situation: A father had been killed, a mother was distraught, and there were children. Eve, Rebitski’s first therapy dog, ran to the kids. “Eve’s gift to humanity was that she was absolutely obsessed with balls,” he explained. The children threw the ball for Eve, petted and played with Eve, while police tried to find family members who could care for them. “It didn’t soften the blow of their father being killed. But they had something else to do” in that moment. It helped.

Rebitski has many stories about the profound work of therapy animals, from horses to the little lizard that broke through the barriers when he was an educator. As a foster dad, the dogs he’s raised played an important part in helping connect with the most troubled children. Often times, the kids don’t understand that they are worthy of love. “Through the dogs they’ve come to understand that they could not only love other people, but they could be loved, too,” he shared. 

At Christmastime, Rebitski shepherds his special dogs to places like preschools and nursing homes. For kids, he relays the ingredients of positive relationships: Development and maintenance, “how relationships aren’t just one and done, they take care, and maintaining,” he said. “Most people nowadays that want or require a therapy dog, what they want is an unconditional friend who won’t care whether they’re in a bad mood or have a bad day … The unconditional love that you get from a therapy dog is what cures the heart, cures the soul,” Rebitski said. “That’s why so many veterans are drawn to them.” 

Rebitski is working with the Veterans Center to help make connections with PAWS dogs available for adoption that make a good fit for individual veterans who need them. They need the basic training, be able to pass certain canine citizenship tests, and be a good fit for their individual owner. “They learn their people very quickly – faster than we learn them,” he said of the phenomenal dogs he’s raised for the job. 

While Aggie may not realize that she’s become a contender in a competitive nation-wide contest, she quickly rose through the ranks. “I was unbelievably amazed,” Rebitski shared of her popularity in the America’s Favorite Pet contest. “I expected those at the top would be papered dogs, police dogs, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that she’s as entitled as any other dog to be celebrated, not just for what she is but what she’s becoming. I think she understands her role; there’s big things ahead. At some point she’s going to touch thousands of people’s lives.” 

The impact these therapy dogs have is hard to measure. They touch the hearts of everyone they meet, from the shopkeepers on Main Street who have canine cookies tucked away waiting for Rylee and Aggie to walk through their doors, to kids who find a friend in their moment of need. “These dogs perform at their highest level simply by waking up in the morning,” Rebitski shared. “You can’t say that about all people.”

Help Aggie reach first place by the end of the America’s Favorite Pet contest: Visit https://americasfavpet.com/2023/aggie-b181 and vote today. You can vote for free once per day, and more votes can be purchased at 10 for $10, with all the proceeds going to PAWS organizations. Voting ends January 31, so make sure to cast your vote every day to watch Aggie, the Fremont County therapy dog in training, make a real difference.