Rikki Remembered

Jun 20, 2017

More evidence comes this week of how a golden retriever saved from Hurricane Katrina changed Florida's legal and medical systems.

Rikki the Therapy Dog
Credit Chuck Mitchell

That animal, Rikki the therapy dog, is still in the news. Just before her death last month, Governor Scott signed a law she inspired, allowing therapy animals into courtrooms to help child victims face their abusers. Now Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare is establishing the Friends of Rikki Endowment to support its animal therapy program. Chuck Mitchell, Rikki's human partner, said their goal is not only to put a team on every floor of TMH, but also,

"To have one in every school where there are struggling readers and to have one available for every child or traumatized victim in court who needs someone to help them find their voice so they can testify," Mitchell explained.

Rikki had a gift. She could walk into a hospital room and go straight to the person whose spouse had just died. She pioneered the use of therapy dogs in Florida courtrooms and never lost a case. And she was the first therapy dog to work with capital cases at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, and one of the Big Bend's first Reading Education Assistance Dogs. Mitchell also pointed to dramatic recoveries by patients who worked with Rikki and other therapy dogs.

"All they bring is their hearts, and through that, they give people the ability to heal themselves, because that's where the real profound change happens. They can't do it for you. You have to be able to do it for yourself. And that's where true healing happens, and that's how people can really recover from trauma."

Mitchell and his wife Patty adopted Rikki in 2005, after her rescue from Hurricane Katrina. He said she changed their lives, too.

"She really taught us a lot about heart, and we're really grateful to her for that," Mitchell said with a catch in his voice.

This week Chuck and Patty Mitchell are travelling to Boca Raton to accept the Rikki Mitchell Memorial Animal Achievement Award from the Florida Bar. Their dog is both its namesake and first recipient. Future awards will honor special animals such as therapy dogs, service dogs and police dogs.

(Thanks to Margie Menzel for making this story possible.)