Giving Back: Superhero AmStaff Serves With an Aloha Spirit

AmStaff Pilialoha Joy Gomes THD, CGC, CGCA, is more than just a certified therapy dog and celebrated breed ambassador in her Honolulu community.

Christina Gomes and American Staffordshire Terrier Pilialoha volunteer their time with Tails of Aloha, an all-volunteer animal assisted therapy organization in Oahu, Hawaii. Photo Courtesy of Leonard Gomes

Christina Gomes’ American Staffordshire Terrier is a superhero. No, really. The 9-year-old bitch with the registered name Pilialoha Joy Gomes THD, CGC, CGCA is more than just a certified therapy dog and celebrated breed ambassador in her Honolulu community. To residents and patients at many of Hawaii’s skilled nursing facilities, the fawn-and-white female is as supernatural as Wonder Woman or Batgirl.

“Everyone [refers to] her in a sort of ‘superhero’ way,” Gomes said with admiration.

I grew up with seven to eight dogs,” Gomes said of her fondness for living with a pack of pooches that includes two AmStaffs. “My dad was an animal trainer and my mom bred Chihuahuas and Fox Terriers,” she noted. Gomes and husband Leonard initially welcomed small dogs into their home, but a burglary led them to discover the many charms of the iconic American breed. “I did my research and learned the [AmStaff] is the original ‘nursemaid’ and ‘nanny dog,’” Gomes explained. SBIS Ch. Pakalana Gomes CGC, CGCA came along first, followed by Pilialoha (Hawaiian for beloved companion). Both exemplify their breed’s caring nature, and both enjoyed time in the show ring. However, when a bout with pyometra cut short the younger bitch’s career, Gomes wasn’t sure what she was going to do with her. “She’d become the queen of the pack,” Gomes explained. “She was the alpha dog, not just the alpha bitch!”

The alpha AmStaff’s introduction to therapy work truly was serendipitous. Bred by Randy Haina, Stacia Ohira, Ethan Castillo and John Tai, Pili was part of the pack that went to visit Gomes’ aunt Margery Kinoshita as the older woman recuperated from knee replacement surgery. “We took all of our dogs to visit with her,” Gomes said. “Pili came along listed as a family member pet, but then and there I learned that she really stood out. She’s meant to do hard core therapy dog work.” Since that first visit, the staff and residents at several continuing care facilities in and around Honolulu have given Pili the nickname, “Thera-Pili.”

With the understanding that one of her dogs was an intuitive caregiver, Gomes reached out to Gayle Igarashi, founder of the animal-assisted therapy group Tails of Aloha. “We owe so much to her for seeing so much potential in Pili,” Gomes said. “She gave Pili a chance. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be doing this.” Gomes and Pili worked so well together that they had no difficulty passing the organization’s rigorous testing process. “Pili didn’t even react to the other dogs around her that were giving her a hard time,” Gomes recalled. As an advocate for her bully breed, Gomes understood how important it would be to get Pili out in front of the public, which would put her in a different category.

In no time, Pili and Gomes began to visit Oahu’s long-term care facilities, including Maluhia nursing home and Kaiser Permanente. The novice team quickly became important volunteers at Hale Nani Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Honolulu where this AmStaff is recognized as the official Facility Therapy Dog. “Her instincts are outstanding, unbelievable,” said Gomes, who is pretty unbelievable herself. In November, she and Pili were presented with Hale Nani’s 2015 Outstanding Volunteer Recognition Award for their “outstanding service, positive contribution and commitment in bringing joy and happiness to our residents.”

“It’s so rewarding to bring comfort and joy to people,” Gomes shared. On Dec. 5, Gomes and Pili were awarded Tails of Aloha’s Animal Assisted Therapy “Team of the Year” at the organization’s annual luncheon. “I’ve been around packs of dogs my entire life,” Gomes said. “But this therapy work with Pili [has taken] me to a whole new level.”

Not content to rest on her laurels, Gomes has no plans to slow down in the coming year. “In addition to holding various dog training classes and being an AKC-certified Canine Good Citizen [and S.T.A.R. Puppy] evaluator, I am a trainer and evaluator for Tails of Aloha,” she said. Preparing other dog and handler teams for the joy of therapy work is something Gomes knows is important to members of her community. As she puts it, “The residents at Hale Nani get unhappy if they miss out on a visit from Pili. She has a very long waiting list of patients who she is requested to see. She is a very popular nurse there.”

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