Norbert always looks like he has just told a joke, and he’s waiting for you to laugh. He knows it’s a bad joke, a pun probably — he seems like the kind of guy who would enjoy wordplay — but no matter how bad a groaner it was, he thinks it’s hilarious. His little eyes sparkle, his tongue pokes out the corner of his mouth, and his ears — furry dishes almost the size of his whole head — twitch forward. You can’t disappoint him. “Good one, Norbie, high-five,” you’ll say, but then you better lean down, because even Norbert’s highest five is only a few inches off the ground. He’s a big personality in an itty-bitty, three-pound doggie.

“I tell people he has a big heart, even though he has this tiny body,” says Norbert’s owner, Julie Steines. “I got lucky when he came into my life. Really, he changed my life. Changed everything about it.”

When Steines started combing the adoption pages in 2009, she was just looking for a little company. “I was alone and I thought I just wanted some companionship,” she says, “but I was really looking to have some more purpose in my life.” Steines had never had a dog before. She hadn’t grown up with pets and hadn’t spent much time around them, but she was ready for a friend. She started looking online and when she saw Norbert on a Petfinder.com profile, she knew he was the one. “I just fell in love when I saw his photo,” she says.

Norbert’s birth was a bit of a surprise to his previous owners. He was the sole puppy in an unexpected pregnancy, and with his unknown parentage and tea-cup size, it was important to find a safe, attentive home for him. “I was a perfect match for him,” says Steines. “At the time, I was by myself in a tiny studio apartment in Boston, Massachusetts. I worked from home, and I could take him everywhere with me.” Norbert was in California, so the little guy took a big plane ride to get to his new owner. She says she still remembers picking him up at the airport and the taxi ride back home. “I was looking at him, and he was looking back at me with these big eyes, and I was both bewildered and very thrilled, like what do I do now?”

THE ONLY THING BETTER THAN BIXBI LIBERTY IS A
FREE BAG OF BIXBI LIBERTY

GET A FREE 4LB bag of LIBERTY with the purchase of any BIXBI treat!

Norbert made it easy on her. He was house-trained by the first day, rarely barked, and enjoyed earning treats by learning tricks like high-fives and yoga moves. He was so sweet and mellow that people around Steines noticed, and suggested she look into therapy dog work. She knew nothing about therapy dogs, but after researching it, she realized that Norbert’s stuffed animal looks and gentle personality made him perfect for the job.
Most dog owners would probably say all dogs are therapy dogs, but if you want your pup to be official, there are classes to take and tests to pass before a dog can become registered as a therapy animal. Once they do — “Norbs passed it the very first time,” says Steines — dogs and their owners can volunteer at schools, hospitals, nursing homes, airports … anywhere people might need a little doggy love and a reason to smile. Therapy dogs aren’t the same as service dogs, which are working animals, such as guide dogs. Therapy animals are more for comfort. Think of the difference this way: service dogs are medical professionals who keep you healthy, and therapy dogs are volunteers there to cheer you up. Even without all the training a service dog gets, therapy dogs can do a lot to help people, and that appealed to Steines — and to Norbert, too. “He liked going places and seeing people. That’s important. It isn’t just about the owner wanting to do it and having a well-behaved dog,” she says. “No matter how smart or well-trained they are, the dog needs to genuinely enjoy it.”
Norbert did, accompanying Steines on a visit to a friend in a nursing home, where both he and the residents had a wonderful time. When she saw how delighted people were to have Norbert’s company, she wanted to bring that joy to as many as possible. “People just loved him, and it kind of went on from there. We got registered as an AKC Canine Good Citizen, and then with Pet Partners, which is a really wonderful therapy dog organization. I’d recommend that anyone looking into therapy dog work start there. I also got him registered as a R.E.A.D. dog,” a program where children can improve literacy by reading books to animals. Norbert was a hit everywhere he went, and he was gaining an online presence too.
Steines’ brother suggested making a social media profile for Norbert. “He told me, ‘Make a Facebook page, you could make other people smile,’” says Steines, who did, posting photos of wee Norbs in teensy sweaters, getting a bath, next to flowers as big as he was. “This was probably 10 years ago,” she says, with a bit of the shock we all feel when we realize how long ago puppyhood was. “He was still a little brown puppy back then.” That’s right: Norbert did a magic trick as he grew up, going from a handful of brownish raccoon to the white-and-gray pom-pom he is today. It happened during the first two years of his life, says Steines, so slowly she didn’t even notice at first. “He made this transformation.”
Inspired by Norbert’s incredibly positive effect on people, Steines decided to pursue one of her life long dreams. “I had always wanted to publish a children’s book with my mother,” she says. “She is an artist, and I thought I could write it, and she could illustrate it.” With help from Norbert’s online audience, Steines and her mother, Dr. Virginia Freyermuth, self-published Norbert: What Can Little Me Do? in 2013. Norbert wasn’t just keeping Steines company, he was helping her start a company. “When I started Polly Parker Press with my mother, I was working fulltime still, but I wasn’t happy. What I loved was responding to people on Norbert’s Facebook page, seeing what joy he brought them, and working on his book, so I just quit my job. I wouldn’t suggest other people do that. I didn’t really have much of a plan, but I had faith in what we were doing. Everything kind of worked itself out.” Norbert’s book won nine awards and quickly sold out, and soon there were television appearances and newspaper and magazine articles. More books followed, including a joint effort with another fuzzy internet star with a saucy tongue poke, the beloved kitty, Lil Bub. Norbert’s online store couldn’t keep his stuffed Norb toys and greeting cards in stock, and with every sale, Steines made sure that there was an element of charitable donation involved.
“Norbert’s mantra — in his books and in the work we do — is that you don’t have to be big to make a big difference in the world,” she says. “I think his audience really sees that in him and understands and identifies with it, and I hope that he can inspire other people.” Certainly, Steines feels that her own journey with Norbert has been one of self-discovery and giving back. “Norbert’s first book is about a little dog who finds his unique gift, his way to make people smile, but I think it’s about me too. Y’know, I was a small kid growing up, and I needed to find a way to make life fulfilling. Volunteering with Norbert, it changed the entire trajectory of my life.”
For everything Norbert visit: norberthood.com
Follow Norbert on Instagram: @norbertthedog

More From

Q & A: Erika Henningsen

In 2015, less than a year after graduating from the University of Michigan’s Musical Theater program, performer Erika Henningsen made her Broadway debut as the

Read More »

Dogs of War

Dogs take their jobs seriously: All members of the Postal Service rightly deserve to be barked at, no squirrel may enter the yard unchased, and

Read More »