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Bethlehem dog entering Animal Hall of Fame

BETHLEHEM - Joanne Halvorson lives for her cocker spaniels.

After all, she has 26 of them - 12 of her own and 14 foster pets, each with their own space, stacked in crates with their names on them in her pantry room.

Halvorson says she doesn't like to mention favorites, but it's clear that the place of honor belongs to Skipper, a 2-year-old rescue dog who will be inducted into the Georgia Animal Hall of Fame today.

Skipper is the statewide winner in the companion category, a distinction that Halvorson is especially proud of because cocker spaniels are not widely regarded as good therapy dogs.

But Skipper has been visiting hospitals and nursing homes for the past year, quite a feat when compared to where she was when she was 4 months old.

Skipper was found in a Dumpster, stuck in a plastic bag with her legs tied together and covered in mange. An associate of Halvorson's drove to Dothan, Ala., at 3 a.m. on a Sunday to be at the shelter where Skipper was held when it opened.

The dog nearly didn't live, but more than a year and a half later, she's cheering up the elderly and disabled with her soft fur and loving kisses.

"Everyone who meets her can't believe her temperament," Halvorson said. "At home, she's a little monster, but in public, she's so quiet, so refined, so well-behaved. She'll crawl into bed with anyone."

Skipper's black hair looks like a mop, and she clamors all over new people, sniffing and licking. Halvorson has begun to teach her freestyle dancing and said the dog enjoys agility training and obedience lessons. She also loves to make her therapy visits, sometimes in a candy striper's uniform and sometimes in a Canine Good Citizen vest.

"As soon as you put that on her, she knows she's going to work," Halvorson said. "It's really amazing to see how dogs make a difference to some of these people."

Skipper will get a medallion and a plaque at the noon ceremony in Augusta. Halvorson said competition was particularly tough this year, and Skipper won the balloting in a 3-2 vote.

Halvorson was ecstatic when she heard Skipper won the companion award.

Other categories are for heroes and professional pets. Although an animal does not have to be a dog to compete, mostly dogs have won.

Skipper definitely knows what an honor she's won, Halvorson said.

"She's got such a fat head it ain't funny," Halvorson said, trying to keep the dog's paws out of a bucket of doggie treats. "I brought her to my office, and an attorney who doesn't even like dogs said Skipper was sexy."