David Patrick Columbia's New York Social Diary

4 December 2012

Top Dogs

From there I grabbed a cab to go down to Cipriani 42nd Street where the Animal Medical Center was holding its annual Top Dog Gala. Every gala, every benefit, has its own profile and personality. It would be a good guess to say that the AMC attracts a group of supporters whom you also might just see at luncheon or dinner at La Grenouille every now and then.

Brooke Astor (for whom an award is named) was once an honoree at an AMC gala. She was so impressed by the veterinary hospital’s facility and staff  that she famously said if she ever got sick she hoped she could go to the AMC for care.

Last night the Brooke Astor Award was presented to Gloria Gilbert Stoga, founder and President of Puppies Behind Bars (PBB).

It  is Ms. Stoga’s belief that dogs have an innate ability to heal. Through her program, PBB instructs prison inmates on how to train service dogs who will then go on to served wounded war veterans. After 9/11, they also began training explosive detection canines (EDCs) to serve on national security defenses around the world.

In 2006 she established Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us – providing free of charge to wounded vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. These dogs were specially trained to work with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. This great program now serves 50 veterans across the country.

Two of its stars were there last night: William Pagan and Oprah, a yellow Lab, and Rick Yarosh and Amos, a black Lab. William Pagan is a Marine veteran who first joined up  in 2001, serving in Iraq for one tour and, then two more – the second in the National Guard. In 2009 he was injured doing a night patrol, suffering multiple wounds – which required spinal fusion surgery – and post-traumatic stress disorder. When he returned to civilian life he found himself overcome by a sense of isolation and fear of going out.

A year ago November 1st, William met Oprah, trained by PHB. During two weeks of training William then learned the 90 tasks Oprah was taught by the prison inmates of PHB. He also learned her body language and how to meet her needs. More than that, Oprah’s outgoing personality made it easier for him to connect with people and feel safe.

A year later man and dog are inseparable. William is involved in volunteering, and in January he graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree from Grantham University. He was studying before he met Oprah but he credits her for giving his life a sense of purpose. “With Oprah, I look forward to waking up and starting every day God gives me.”

Rich Yarosh was serving in Iraq when in September 1, 2006, stationed in southern Baghdad, he and his crew were in their Bradley Fighting Vehicle when its fuel tank was hit with an improvised explosive device.

Rick received 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 60% of his body. His face was badly burned, he lost his right leg, and fingers on both hands. He was hospitalized for six months in Texas and spent another three years as an out patient. The hardest thing was losing his buddy, Sergeant Luis Montes who died six days after the explosion.

Rick credits his family, friends, community and his doctors for his recovery, On August 13th, Rick met Amos, to help him begin to live a fully independent life again. Amos can turn lights off and on, open doors, retrieve items and “watch Rick’s back” in public places. Amos is now an integral part of Rick’s life. “He does what I do, goes where I go, and most importantly we understand each other. Amos has made my life easier. When I feel down, he is always there to pick me up.”

So, we had some good lessons on Courage, Bravery and Love last night at the Top Dog Gala. There were many people in the great hall who were moved by stories of William and Oprah and Rick and Amos. These canines are walking, moving, tail-wagging lessons in unconditional love, good for all of us and good for what ails the world. The only sad part of that reality is that there are so many humanoids out there who don’t get it, and whose deprived, sapped spirits make it hard for the dogs to dwell in a state of peace and love.

It was a very rewarding evening. Robert Liberman, the chairman of the Board of Trustees told the group that this was their most successful fund-raiser, taking in more than $1.5 million. Gloria Gilbert Stoga in her acceptance speech informed us of the richness of her personal experience and the examples of her trainings’ successes. Benefit Co-chairs were Ina Garten, Nancy Kissinger, Barbara Liberman, Annette de la Renta and Robert Couturier.

It was a black tie evening, as you can see, and another aspect of its success was that starting with cocktails at 7 and dinner served at a little after 8, after the inspiring stories and examples of the abundant love canines provide (to those who love them), the evening, including dessert, was over at 10 PM. Amos and Oprah got some treats too.

Alison Minton and Mark Gilbertson.