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Knox sheltie ‘Brandwen’ wins ‘top dog’ honor

Branwen, a 10-year-old Shetland sheepdog, has always led a full and useful life.

Now, she’s earned celebrity status, too.

Her reliability and usefulness for owner Cynthia Andresen, a Pellissippi State Technical Community College employee, was recognized Sunday, March 19, with Branwen’s induction into the Tennessee Animal Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Branwen accompanied Andresen to Nashville for inclusion in the Hall, established in 1993 by the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association and the Tennessee Home-Animal Bond Foundation.

The Association treated Branwen and Andresen to an honors luncheon and a complimentary weekend stay at the Franklin Marriott Cool Springs hotel. At a ceremony, Branwen received 2006 top dog honors in the “Companion Dog” category.

The Hall of Fame — which also honors a “Hero” and “Professional” animal category each year — recognizes domestic animals such as Branwen who “exemplify the strength and value of the human-animal bond.”

“I’m not quite sure whether I got the plaque — or she did,” joked Andresen, a South Knoxville resident. But Branwen richly deserves the honor, she added.

Branwen, whose name is derived from the Welsh goddess of love and beauty and from an Arthurian romance, assists Andresen, who is visually impaired, by accompanying her 24/7 on travels around Knox County.

Whether Andresen is working on the PSTCC campus or is helping remodel her English Tudor home in South Knox, Branwen is nearby. Andresen and her husband live near Ijams Nature Center.

Andresen, who works in PSTCC’s Service for Students with Diabilities program, was heartbroken in the mid-1990s when her previous assistance dog, a beloved Sheltie, died. For nearly a year, Andresen did not consider a replacement.

Then Maryville veterinarian Beth Small, a 25-year acquaintance who had found Andresen her Sheltie, located a seven-week-old female puppy, which Small considered the ideal successor.

Andresen said the two women had trained dogs together for years, so Small knew her needs well. Branwen and Andresen since have become inseparable.

“I have some trouble with depth perception,” Andresen said. “Branwen’s well-trained to help me with staircases and the like. But she does so much more than that for me.”

Branwen accompanies Andresen on her shopping trips, regularly escorting her down the grocery aisles.

“At work, when I try to toss trash away and miss the wastebasket, Branwen picks up the paper and puts it in the basket for me,” she said. “If I ask her, she’ll even go retrieve my faxes.”

Branwen has become so adept, in fact, she can pick up fallen paper clips or even tiny computer screws when Andresen needs her to. She helps others, too.

PSTCC coworkers who know the sheepdog well have become unofficial members of the Branwen Fan Club.

“When friends on campus get stressed out, they’ll stop by my office to visit,” Andresen grinned. “But they really stop by to visit Branwen. She always makes people feel better.”

Andresen’s constant companion has an indisputably therapeutic effect on human dispositions.

Beyond campus, Branwen is a canine goodwill ambassador around the Knoxville community.

Andresen chairs the Knoxville Mayor’s Council on Disabilities Issues, so she has many community contacts in service agencies, hospitals and nursing homes. When Branwen visits those places, she said, the dog “brings introverted residents out of their shells, lowers everyone’s blood pressure, and she makes people she meets smile.”

In one instance, Andresen said, Branwen’s visit actually seemed a factor in one patient’s emergence from a coma.

Andresen had patiently taught her dog many “people skills” during their decade together. But not this one:

“The big thing she does that still amazes me is her mapping skill,” Andresen said. Branwen has a keen sense of direction in places such as hospitals where I sometimes have trouble finding my way.

“You know what a catacombs those places can be,” Andresen said of larger institutions in general. “But somehow Branwen knows her way. She can retrace my steps perfectly, and she always knows the shortest route to the outdoors from anywhere inside.”

Andresen still isn’t certain how Branwen does that in strange buildings. But it seems instinctive.

Branwen has one skill she’s yet to master: Saying “Thank you” in human speak. She’s working on it, Andresen said.

Until Branwen achieves that, Andresen said, she will thank Dr. Small on Branwen’s behalf for having sponsored her Hall of Fame entry, along with all her friends who wrote excellent letters of recommendations — all part of the nomination process.

Many service dogs, Andresen said, may not be petted, especially when they are working, assisting their owners.

“But Branwen brings others so much joy,” Andresen said. “That’s why I’m particularly lenient about letting people pet her.”


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