Piggy is a dog who knows. He knows if you’re having a bad day. If you’re sick or injured. Or if you could really use a friend. This is what Tod Emko, Piggy’s dad of eight years, says about the border collie mix, whom he rescued from the Dominican Republic in 2009.
“The dog has the ability to detect when people are suffering and hiding it;” Emko, cofounder of Darwin Animal Doctors, an international organization that helps animals, said. “And he has the ability to bring that suppressed suffering out, so people can finally let go of it.”
Emko believes that Piggy’s past is what gave him a flair for helping people. In 2009, animal rescuers found Piggy limping on a street in the Dominican Republic. He was emaciated, covered in ticks and severely injured.
“He was hit by a car in the Dominican Republic at only a couple months old,” Emko said. “He was left dying without any veterinary care from his wounds for a whole month before a high-volume veterinary team visited from the U.S.”
The vet team ended up amputating the dog’s leg. This saved Piggy’s life and got rid of some of his pain. But Piggy never forgot what it’s like to suffer, according to Emko. And he learned to recognize suffering in others.
The first time it happened was in June 2009. Emko and his friend Andrea Gordon had just brought Piggy to New York City from the Dominican Republic, and Piggy was still learning how to get around on three legs.
“He was skinny, hairless and barely able to hop for more than a couple blocks,” Emko said. “But he was determined to gain strength and walk farther each day. And even though it was easier for him to stay on park paths, one day, he veered off the trail in Central Park, singling out one person out of the crowd.”
Emko figured Piggy was chasing a squirrel, but Piggy surprised him by lying down in front of a man sitting on a park bench. Then Piggy placed his paw on the man’s shoe, and the man burst into tears.
“I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they said, ‘I just lost my dog this morning.’ And then the person smiled through the tears and petted him, saying, ‘How did you know I needed that?’”
Initially, Emko wondered if this was an isolated incident.
“I didn’t know what to make of it. Clearly Piggy was special, but who knows what that one incident may have meant?”
But helping people quickly became a habit for Piggy, according to Emko. On walks around New York City, Piggy approached people having panic attacks, people who were sick or injured, and people recovering from traumatic experiences.
“He’ll pause, his ears will perk up, he’ll get the ‘Timmy trapped down a well’ stare, and then he’ll pull me over to the person.Usually, after putting his paw on the person, he will continue to stay with them, as long as it takes, until they feel better.”
Piggy even does this when he’s out with a dog walker instead of Emko.
“I would get frantic phone calls from his dog walkers who would say, ‘You’ll never believe what Piggy just did in the park! “I’d reply, ‘Yes, I know, he does that.’”
In 2016, Emko started taking Piggy to schools and hospitals to visit kids — and Piggy proved to be the perfect therapy dog.
“There is one encounter that I will always think of when I think of how remarkable Piggy is,” Emko said. “One day Piggy was volunteering at iHOPE NYC for kids with severe brain injuries. And one girl we came across, the social workers said she had a huge fear of dogs. And she didn’t have much range of movement either, so do not expect her to interact with Piggy.”
But when Piggy approached the little girl, something incredible happened.
“He looked at her, and she looked back,” Emko said. “And over the course of the day, she came closer. And she reached up with her arm in a brace and reached out, her arm unsteady but determined, and began petting Piggy’s fur, and she grew a huge smile. The social workers began crying, they could not believe that scene, for so many reasons.”
More recently, Piggy comforted an elderly neighbor with a leg injury.
“Piggy often stops and sits in front of her or our other neighbors as he passes their stoop; waiting to be petted,” Emko said. “But today, he already walked a long way, so he was tired, but as soon as he saw Sharon, he summoned the strength to hop up the stoop stairs one by one until he got to her, and then he laid his head on her leg.”
As it turned out, Piggy seemed to have a good reason for climbing the stairs.
“Sharon told us that her leg was hurting her badly that day; to the point that she couldn’t walk even one block before doubling over to clutch her leg,” Emko said. “Piggy understood that feeling completely. He stayed with her. They kept looking into each other’s eyes, and her smile grew big before Piggy was ready to continue his walk.”
But it’s not just people who Piggy helps — according to Emko, he also senses when other animals need a friend.
“He recently refused to leave Central Park, pulling me off the trail again,” Emko said. “Strangely, he ran past crowds of adoring picnickers, who wanted to reach out to pet him as he passed. But he ran straight past them, and around a bush, and up to a small white fluffy dog. He proceeded to give her kisses all over, although she just stood without reacting at first.”
When Emko asked the dog’s owner if her dog couldn’t see very well, he got an unexpected reply.
“She [the owner] responded with a heavy heart, ‘This old girl is dying. This is her last trip to Central Park before she goes to the vet. For the final time,’” Emko said. “I looked down, and Piggy kept nudging and kissing her, until she perked up, and began wagging her tail. Once she was perky and smiling, Piggy was finally ready to leave the park.”
Emko sometimes says that Piggy has a superpower. But he truly believes that Piggy is just doing what dogs do best.
“Border collies and Aussie shepherds usually want a job to do — it’s how they are,” Emko said.
“Piggy is being the ultimate example of a dog. He’s looking for good to do and looking for lives to save or make better. And teaching us how we could do the same.”