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Everyday Hero: Therapy dog and her trainer are all about cutting stress, bringing smiles

Fourth year dental student Sophie Diepenheim (deep-en-hime)-- with Burk's and Zipporah's help-- trained her dog to be a therapy dog. She was smitten with the white akita. (KATU)

Spend any amount of time around today's Everyday Hero and her dog and watch people -- in this case stressed-out medical students at Oregon Health & Science University -- melt and sigh.

On most Fridays you can find Julie Burk and her Akita Zipporah (zah-pour-ah) in the main lobby of the Collaborative Life Sciences building on the south waterfront.

It doesn't really matter how harried, busy or stressed-out by exams the medical and dental students in the life sciences building are feeling, there's a dog and they need to pet it.

“Just walking with the dog down the hall, it doesn't matter if people are on their phones or whatever -- they're looking down, they see the dog, you'll see their head pop up and a big smile,” said Burk, Zipporah’s owner and trainer. “Even for a minute, that smile has changed their day and it can't get any better than that.”

Burk, a veterinary technician four days a week, brings her fluffy and attentive 7-year-old dog to just hang out.

A crowd quickly surrounds both her and the dog.

“Everybody is like, OMG, she's so soft, she's so calm, she's so patient,” Burk said. “She is all those things. Take off the vest, she is still an Akita. She likes to play hard.”

Burk learned of the healing, calming power of animals in college when she brought a talkative macaw to visit a patient with a disfiguring tumor.

The bird's comic patter brought a smile to the man's face.

“I heard a bunch of crying behind me, and I turned around and looked and all the nursing staff was standing behind me and I was like hmm,” she said. “And they're like "He hasn't smiled in six months.’ And I went, ‘Oh.’”

In addition to decreasing the stress levels of medical students, Zipporah and Burk make the rounds at Doernbecher's Children Hospital and are also called out for disasters like the Oso landslide in Darrington, Washington in March 2014.

“Basically, she's a therapy dog that works in disasters,” Burk said. “They just have a lot of additional training on them to be able to go.”

“Two of the students, one studying general surgery and the other dentistry, say they were inspired to get dogs of their own.

Fourth-year dental student Sophie Diepenheim (deep-en-hime) -- with Burk's and Zipporah's help -- trained her dog to be a therapy dog. She was smitten with the white Akita.

“I saw her little fluffy tail poking out behind a chair and said, "That's a dog ... I'm going to go say hi,” Deipenheim said. “A lot of people have anxiety at the dentist, kids and adults and so just having a distraction there and having a dog that's a positive interaction made a really big difference.”

Medical student Xiao-Yue Han (shy-you-han) now requests therapy dogs for patients and has not one, but two dogs of his own.

All because of Zipporah.

“I met her four years ago and she inspired me to get a first husky and a second husky," said Xiao-Yue Han. "So now they're the best part of my life. ... She's the best, she's seriously the best."

Burk says her first Akita was also trained as a therapy dog who then helped pass on his skills to Zipporah.

At first people see Zipporah’s vest and think she's a service dog and not to pet.

So Burk put up a sign encouraging people to come and visit.

Few can resist.

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