Ellie and Kevin are dog-dad combination with a mission to put smiles on faces.
This beautiful Golden Retriever is a therapy dog that volunteers in many different settings, including hospitals and schools.
Ellie and Kevin are also on a mission to help children learn to read and improve literacy in the USA.
In 2020, Kevin decided to start a TikTok account for Ellie after their volunteer work was put on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Spreading cheer across the world, Kevin’s account Golden Retriever Life quickly hit 1.5 million followers.
In this interview, we spoke to Kevin about Ellie and their volunteer work, their mission to spread virtual smiles and success on TikTok.
1) Could you give us a little bit about your background with regards to your military service and what inspired you to get a dog?
While serving as an Army helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, my unit was accompanied by a service dog named, Zac. Zac brought joy to Soldiers and would even fly in my helicopter wearing specialized ear and eye protection. Upon returning home, my wife and I decided to spread the same type of happiness in our local community.
2) How did you end up with Ellie?
I got Ellie as an 8-week old puppy from a breeder in Georgia. We selected this breeder because of her reputation for intelligent and well-behaved dogs. Ellie’s mom is a therapy dog and her dad is a search and rescue dog.
3) What attracted you to the Golden Retriever breed over other types of dogs?
I grew up with Labs and wanted to continue this trend with my first dog. However, my wife grew up with Golden Retrievers and insisted on getting one as our first dog. Although all breeds are great, I’m grateful we decided to get a Golden Retriever.
4) Can you give an insight into Ellie’s personality?
Ellie is a loving, trusting, and intelligent dog. She enjoys training, volunteering, swimming, and traveling.
5) What does an average day look like for Ellie?
Ellie loves to sleep! She wakes up early in the morning to go to the bathroom and eat her breakfast. After that, she will sleep until mid-day when we typically go for a walk. She then takes another nap until 4:30 pm. Ellie will stare at me until she gets her dinner around 5 pm and then play until bedtime around 10 pm.
6) Can you explain the differences between a service and therapy dog?
I’m glad you asked this question as it is often misunderstood. In layman’s terms, service dogs are for their handler and therapy dogs are for others. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability. An example of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind, or a dog who assists someone who has a physical disability. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are trained to provide affection, comfort, and support to people other than the handler.
7) What kind of impact has Ellie been able to have as a therapy dog?
As a therapy team, we advance the physical, emotional, and social well-being of others through the use of animal-assisted interactions. The impact is difficult to quantify, but incredibly rewarding. For example, we were once visiting a patient who recently suffered from a stroke. Out of nowhere, the patient’s wife started crying uncontrollably. When I asked her what was wrong she responded, “These are happy tears. My husband just smiled and that is the first time he has moved since having his stroke.”
8) How can Ellie and other therapy dogs help children develop their reading skills (which I read is a big passion project of yours)?
Although Ellie volunteers in many settings, it is most rewarding to observe the effects she has on children during “Tail Waggin’ Tutors.” This reading program motivates children to read and improves literacy, supporting expansive research on animal-assisted therapy. Unfortunately, this program is currently limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are looking forward to volunteering again in the near future.
9) What hacks do you have for dog owners looking to train their dogs to Ellie’s level?
I’m a strong believer in positive reinforcement training and think every dog owner can do it if they dedicate time to learning the methods. I primarily learned from books and YouTube videos.
The best “hack” is consistency. Everyone in your household should be on the same page when it comes to training. This also applies to friends and even strangers in public. For example, if I’m on a walk and someone asks to pet Ellie, I reply “you can pet her if she sits.”
10) What’s your favourite trick or Ellie’s favourite trick to do?
Ellie loves any trick that involves treats, but I would say my favorite trick is her ability to “leave it.” This is perhaps the most important thing one can teach their dog, especially when volunteering in hospitals where there can be dangerous substances on the floor.
11) What comments do you get when people meet Ellie?
“She is so soft!”
“I love her crimped hair!” (Ellie’s hair gets crimped anytime she is wet or it is humid.)
“Ellie is so sweet!”
12) What made you start your TikTok account for Ellie?
As I mentioned above, we normally volunteer in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and libraries. However, the current COVID-19 pandemic restricted us from volunteering in person, so we decided to find a new way to connect with others. Although I wasn’t familiar with TikTok, a few students during a therapy session as well as one of my friends mentioned the platform. I decided TikTok would be a great way to spread smiles and positivity virtually, so I started posting videos in February 2020.
13) Do you prefer the Instagram or TikTok platform? Could you explain your choice?
Both platforms are great, but I personally prefer TikTok because videos provide an unique medium for connecting with your fans on a deeper level.
14) How much time goes into planning your TikTok content? Do you find a particular type of content works well for you and your community of fans?
The level of planning and time associated with creating a video varies significantly. Some videos are filmed, edited and posted in 30-minutes whereas others take several hours. Typically, I see the highest engagement on content that highlights Ellie’s intelligence while incorporating a trend.
15) How does it feel to have grown such a big fanbase so quickly?
Our goal on TikTok has always been to spread smiles and I’ve been humbled by the response. It’s surreal to think about our ability to connect with people from all around the world.
16) Do you have tips for people looking to grow on TikTok?
• Stay true to your values and focus on authenticity.
• Nothing is private on the internet and things live for eternity.
• You don’t have to be perfect.
• I use a MVP (Minimum viable product) model.
• Focus on improving with every post, but don’t overthink your content
17) What is your favourite TikTok post or memory with Ellie?
Although we’ve been on several major media outlets (The Ellen Show, CBS, Sports Illustrated, etc), the most memorable moments are when I see comments about how we helped someone through a tough time. You never know what someone is going through, but sometimes a smile makes all the difference.
18) Finally, what’s next for Ellie? Does she have anything exciting planned heading into 2021?
We are going to continue focusing on our mission to spread smiles.