Therapy Dog Brings Happiness

This column first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Gaston Alive magazine.


It takes a special dog to be a pet therapy dog. But I wonder if it may take even more of a special person to be a therapy dog trainer/owner.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend one of our pet therapy friendship visits at Holy Angels – a residential facility for children and adults with intellectual developmental disabilities, many of which that have delicate medical conditions. My job that day was to snap a few pictures and capture the interaction between Zip, the therapy dog, and the residents he was there to visit.

So that’s what I did. And in those moments between the clicks of the camera, I stood there in awe. I knew the effect a loving dog could have on a person. After all, I’ve been around dogs my whole life. What struck me more than anything was the person behind the dog. That person was Suzanne Fairbairn.

I had never met Suzanne prior to this day. In fact, I knew very little about her, except that she worked with therapy dogs. However, in just a few moments, I could tell she was a kind soul just by watching her. She was friendly, warm and personable with each and every resident that she and Zip interacted with that day.

I expected Zip to connect. That’s his job. It’s what he was trained to do. But Suzanne connected with those residents far better than I could have imagined. But if you ask Suzanne, it wasn’t always that way.

You see, Suzanne claims she’s a shy person by nature. That surprised me. There’s something about a dog that seems to bring her out of her shell.

Or as she says, dogs just make her a better person.

Ask Suzanne and she’ll tell you that she has two passions. She loves dogs and she loves music. Music pays the bills. Her love of dogs pays too – just in a different way. It feeds her soul.

Suzanne is the Music Director at First Presbyterian Church in Belmont – a job she has held for the last 26 years. She loves the job, but admits it can be stressful and demanding at times. That’s where the dogs come in.

She and her dogs have been visiting Holy Angels residents on a consistent basis over the last 15 years. But that’s not the only place they go. One day it may be a visit to an Alzheimer’s unit at an assisted living facility and the next day it could be visiting with students at a local elementary school. People of all ages need dogs. And Suzanne knows this.

Wherever there’s someone that needs a little TLC, that’s where you will find Suzanne, with her sidekicks Zip or Pippin.

With pet therapy, some may think that the dog is the channel – the channel in which unconditional love and affection flows. And it probably is. But you can’t have a communication channel without a receiver and a transmitter.

Suzanne may be the transmitter, but I guarantee she is receiving as well. Watching her dogs connect to the people they visit is exactly why she does what she does.

Suzanne was once called in to spend some time with a young girl who was going through a difficult time at home. She had become emotionally withdrawn. She wouldn’t interact with her other classmates and would barely communicate with her teachers. School officials recognized this and decided to have Suzanne and her dog, Allie, meet with this girl for about thirty minutes a week.

Thirty minutes a week doesn’t seem like much, but thirty minutes with a loving dog can work wonders. Over time, this young girl began to gradually interact. First with Allie, and then with Suzanne. It wasn’t long after, she would interact with her teachers, and then finally her classmates. Over time, this young girl slowly emerged from her shell.

Just like Suzanne.

What is it about dogs? They some how find a way to force us out of our shells. That’s what they do.

So on second thought, maybe the dog isn’t the channel after all. It takes all three to effectively communicate and connect. Everyone transmits. And everyone receives.

At the end of the day, everyone wins. Everyone is in tune. Suzanne may even say, it’s perfect harmony.

 

 

Memories That Can’t Be “Put Out Of Your Mind”

It’s Tuesday morning, 7:22am to be exact. A text comes in from my Mom addressed to my brother and me:

“Please don’t try to get me a Mother’s Day present. Y’all do a lot for me all the time. Just put it out of your mind to think about.”

I’ll admit, my brain isn’t that sharp at 7:22 am in the morning. But let’s face it, there’s a lot to dissect in this one text.

The first thing is, what’s a Mother’s Day without a Mother’s Day present? It could be handmade or store bought, but either way, it’s still something – something to show your mom how much you love her.

But then there is the bit about putting it out of your head. I don’t know about you, but as soon as you tell me to put something out of my head, the opposite seems to happen. It becomes permanently tattooed to my brain. It’s not going anywhere.

My Mom’s birthday is January 3, and she’ll be the first to tell you it’s always come at the most inopportune of times.

Jan. 3 may come at the beginning of a new year, but it comes at the end of a long holiday season. By Jan. 3, the holiday hangover has hit everyone. People are sick of of everything. They are sick of gatherings. They are sick of food and sweets. Let’s face it, they are sick of people. After the holiday season, people need a holiday from their holidays.

The effort to pull off her birthday celebration has never been as good as it could be, sad to say. That amazing present idea you have for her? Yeah, that gets used at Christmas. Nine days later, you have to find another amazing birthday present. That’s a lot of amazing in a short period of time.

So one year, she decided she would move her birthday – to February 3. First of all, can you even do this? Apparently, you can. A precedent had already been set. Her mother, my grandmother, did just this. And nobody was going to tell my grandmother what to do.

But that didn’t work. How do we not acknowledge her birthday on her birthday. It’s a matter of essence – the birthday is the day.

Instead, we make it work. And maybe we get a little better each year.

But what do you get someone who has it all? Or better yet, can get what she wants, when she wants it? You give experiences. Because that’s what life’s all about – making memories through new and exciting experiences.

So that’s what my siblings decided to do.

January 3 may be during the holiday hangover period, but this year it was the beginning of the Patty Dungan ‘Go-See-Do’ Tour of 2017.

We’re not quite at Mother’s Day yet, but there’s already been a few stops along the way on the Tour.

We’ve been to a Charlotte Checkers game. We’ve had a custom scavenger hunt of Uptown Charlotte. Even dinner at Heritage Food and Drink, an up-and-coming farm to table restaurant in Waxhaw, has made the cut.

More tour dates to come. There’s plenty more things to go, see and do still in 2017. More memories will be made. Memories that she, nor any of us, will be able to put out of our heads.

And that’s suits us just fine.

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner


I have just discovered the magic that is the rotisserie chicken. It’s become a go-to staple on my weekly trip to the grocery store. And I dare say, it’s fast becoming a ritual.

It’s tasty. It’s convenient. And it’s inexpensive. I guess you could say I owe it all to that Kenny Rogers guy.

It may be a ritual for me, but it’s become an expectation where Ginger is concerned.  

Ginger is a 14-pound shih tzu that takes up residence in my house. Cute and cuddly on the outside, yet feisty and opinionated on the inside. And she’s 11 years old – which makes her 77 years old if we’re keeping score in human years.

Yes, I have senior citizen dog. And I’m reminded of it everyday.

I love the shih tzu breed. I really do. I had one growing up. So I knew what to expect when Ginger came along.

Or so I thought.

My family took in Tuffy, a male shih tzu, around the time when I was 10 years old. He was everything you’d want in a dog that was going to live in a home with three kids.

He was calm, cool and collected at all times. He’d let anyone pick him up and hold him. And he was especially gentle and patient with small children – especially the ones that made sudden movements and loud noises.

So when Ginger came into my life, I thought I was getting Tuffy 2.0. Boy, was I was wrong. They are nothing alike. Tuffy was cute and sweet. Ginger generally is not. She’s way too uptight and high-strung than Tuffy ever was, not to mention that she is definitely smarter and more manipulative. And she certainly doesn’t take crap from anyone.

Not even me.

She does love my new weekly ritual. However, it no longer belongs to me. It has become our weekly ritual. Because as soon as I enter the house with the groceries, all it takes is one whiff of the freshly cooked chicken and she begins to lose her mind.

One thing can be said about dogs. You always know where you stand. With cats, not so much. But with dogs, specifically my dog, you just know.

There’s the wagging of the tale, or it could be the tap dancing on the kitchen floor when you say the word ‘treat’. But lately, she’s had this nagging bark that seems to come at the most inopportune of times.

I may know where I stand, but I have no idea what she wants.

The incessant barking begins as soon as I sit down. It’s only gotten worse the last few years. She knows how to get my attention. Because if she barks, I give her a reaction. It’s the reaction that she is chasing. How dare I sit down and look at a screen and not talk to her.

Does she want to be held? No. Does she want to go outside? No. Is she out of dog food or water? No. Then what else is there that a dog wants or needs. It has to be attention.

Of course. Like most weekdays, I’ve been away for much of the day. And the thought of me directing my attention towards something else is offensive to her.

However, it wasn’t always this way. I don’t remember what it was before. I just know it didn’t look or feel like this.

She sleeps all day, and apparently this old lady needs less and less sleep the older she gets. So by 6:30pm, she’s wide awake and ready to take on the day. I’m ready to take on the recliner.

It’s become one big game. And neither of us knows the rules. She does know how to manipulate me. And dammit, I know how to manipulate her.

I don’t know if she’s trained me or if I’ve trained her, but it’s how we operate at this stage of the game. She speaks in barks, and I speak in English. Thankfully, we are both fluent in chicken.

The chicken is tasty to her, and for me, well, it buys me a few moments of peace and quiet.

We’ve become two strong-willed opinionated family members, butting heads against each other night in and night out. But we still manage to come together like all families do for Thankgiving dinner.

Only this time, it’s with chicken. The other white meat.

Glen Campbell Says ‘Adios’

Moments are fleeting. Memories last a lifetime. In fact, I dare say that memories are the building blocks of a life well-lived. And many times they are all we have left.

Until we don’t. Thanks to Alzheimer’s Disease. It chisels away a little at a time until those memories are no longer there.

Over 5 millions Americans are battling this disease according to the latest facts and figures from the Alzheimer’s Association.

That’s a lot of people. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone personally with this disease. But I will. There’s no doubt there. By 2050, an estimated 16 million Americans will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

At 81 years old, Glen Campbell seems to be the public face of the disease. Anyone who has seen the 2014 documentary, I’ll Be Me, got an in-depth glimpse into the early stages of what this awful disease can do.

The documentary is heartbreaking and heartwarming all rolled into one. It’s clear in the film, Glen Campbell is fueled by the music. When everything else was falling apart, the music still resonated within him. It’s what kept him going, one day at a time.

There’s an openness and vulnerability that Glen and his family show in this documentary. But I think this project was put together in part to give Alzheimer’s a big middle finger – or as he says in the movie – a big “left hook’. He’s letting it know that it can ravage his mind and it can ravage his body, but it can’t ravage his spirit.

Speaking of memories, my dad was the one who introduced me to the music of Glen Campbell. That’s saying a lot since my dad doesn’t love music. He loves motors. He has a better chance of winning ‘Name That Carburetor’ than he does at ‘Name That Tune’.

Now my Mom, she’s the one that loves music. So when I would go digging through her record collection as a kid, my dad’s few records could be found interspersed in there. Glen Campbell was one of those.

But just because you love motors over music doesn’t mean you can’t have a few favorite songs along the way. For my Dad, it doesn’t get any better than “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle of My Mind.’

I think my dad loves songs that reference other places. Or maybe he likes the songs that feel like they could have been easily placed in a Western starring John Wayne.

As for me, I’m a “Gentle on My Mind’ kind of guy. The opening of that tune sucks me in every time.

But in true Glen Campbell fashion, he’s not done yet. On June 9, he will release his 64th and final album. The project was recorded back in 2012 and 2013 while he still had a little gas left in the tank. And the album title is so fitting – Adios.

You see, I’ve never been one for goodbyes. They seemed too final for me. I once heard a preacher say at a funeral that it’s not goodbye – it’s see you later.

Only six years after his initial diagnosis, it’s been reported that Glen is now in the final stages of this dreadful disease. I can’t even imagine what that looks like or feels like.

His back roads may be overgrown. And I’m sure the rivers by his memory are all but dry. But one thing’s for sure – the music and spirit of Glen Campbell will continue to be with me – and always be gentle on my mind.

The Magic of Cotton Candy

I wouldn’t classify myself as a cotton candy guy. I may eat it once a year, but that’s about it. I’ve never been one to crave it or seek it out. It usually finds me first.

So, I wasn’t sure how well-received a cotton candy store would fare in a quaint little town like Belmont, NC. Sure, people be curious and they would even want to try it. But would they keep coming back?

After only a few weeks into the Cotton Candy Factory phenomenon and the answer to that question is a resounding “YES!”.

They say life is about the journey, not the destination. So you can imagine the journey those tiny granules of sugar undergo to create a cone of fluffy cotton candy goodness right before your very eyes.

This is where I changed my tune. Cotton candy is magic. It really is. It’s hypnotizing and mesmerizing. And I dare say, it makes time stand still.

There’s only one other place I know of where time stands still. That’s Spencer’s Gifts.

Anytime I go in there, it feels like 1987 all over again. It looks and smells just like it did in 1987. They even sell the same crap they did in 1987. Just instead of Bart Simpson’s face on t-shirts and shot glasses it’s zombies from The Walking Dead.

On a recent lunch visit to Belmont, my niece Sanders was given a choice after she ate her lunch. Did she want ice cream or cotton candy for dessert? I thought cotton candy was a no-brainer. I was wrong. She chose ice cream.

This shouldn’t surprise me. She has strong opinions when it comes to food. She’s not a picky eater by any means, but she likes what she likes. She likes chicken, but only if it’s on the bone. She likes a peanut butter and honey sandwich, but only if it’s freshly made. It can’t sit in a lunch box for hours before consumption.

And she LOVES donuts. But apparently not cotton candy.

When I pressed if she was sure she didn’t want cotton candy, she dug in her heels. She was not getting cotton candy, no matter how hard I tried to sway her.

But she did say she would still go inside the Cotton Candy Factory. I mean, you can’t visit Downtown Belmont these days and not at least walk into the Cotton Candy Factory.

But she wasn’t going to get any cotton candy. Did I mention that? That is, until she walked in and got sucked in. In moments, she was transformed and transfixed. Next thing you know, she had a cone in her hand and she was spinning and grinning.

You see, that’s when it dawned on me. The Cotton Candy Factory doesn’t produce cotton candy. It produces smiles. And for a brief moment, it stops time.

Professional surfer Skip Frye once remarked that Ponce de León sailed the ocean in search of the Fountain of Youth, when all he had to do was jump over the side of his ship.

Or find his way to the nearest Cotton Candy Factory. We’ll save a cone for you, Señor de León.

Generica: Where The Brand Is Bland and The Price Is Right

You can have madness in your life during the month of March, but you can’t have March Madness. It’s not yours. It’s the proud trademark of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Same goes for businesses. They can feel it. They can even think it. But they are prohibited to use it in a commercial way or profit from it.

I get it. The corporate partners of the NCAA that pay the big bucks to tie their brand with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are the ones that get dibs on March Madness. That’s only fair.

It happens every year with The Super Bowl too. You may have a bowl, that is quite super, but you can’t have the Super Bowl. Instead you must use phrases like “The Big Game” or “Pigskin Showdown” in order to avoid those trademark violations.

But that’s what I love – the tap-dancing around the phrase without saying the actual “phrase that pays”. I love watching companies and businesses twist and contort themselves to come up with a string of similar words that say one thing, but with a wink and a nod, tip their hat to the real thing.

It takes me back to the mid-90’s when grocery stores began to carry a line of inferior (and cheaper) ‘store-brand’ products that were clearly knock-offs of their brand-name counterparts.

It seemed especially prevalent when it came to the soft drinks. You could have your Coke and your Pepsi, but for a better price (and a lesser experience), you could choose the store brand’s version of Coke and Pepsi.

WalMart and Sam’s Club carried the ‘Sam’s Choice’ brand – an homage to Sam Walton, the man we can credit or blame for founding the retail giant that it is today.

Harris Teeter countered with something bigger than a guy named Sam. They went with “President’s Choice”, or the initials “P.C.”, as it was displayed on the can. Seems like a fitting name for a drink that a politician would choose.

Cola was fair came. Just don’t say Coca before it. Or Pepsi. Anything else works.

The most amusing thing was seeing which clever name they chose for the other brand name soft drinks.

Instead of Dr. Pepper, President’s Choice went with Dr. Smooth. Sam’s Choice chose Dr. Thunder. I’m just reassured every drink had its doctorate. I only go for the educated drinks, Mr. Pibb!

If you lean towards the caffeine-free variety, you could have selected Twist-Up when strolling down a WalMart aisle. But President’s Choice had them beat. They offered Spritz Up – the apparent love child of Sprite and 7-Up.

So what if Mountain Dew and Mello Yello got together? You’d either have Mountain Yellow or Mello Dew. And those just doesn’t sound appealing. Thankfully Sam’s Choice went with Mountain Lightning and President’s Choice settled on Mountain Mania.

So, I’ve decided. In my next life, I’m going to pay homage to these cheesy, yet clever, generic product names. I’m going to create a game show, find a generic-looking game show host, and name the show “The Brand is Bland.”

I won’t be able to afford Vanna White, but I’m sure Hanna Black will be available. Contestants will compete to come up with the most creative and clever generic names for a series of powerhouse brand name products.

I can’t say the show will be great and I can’t say the show will be good. But I can say this – it will be tolerable.

About as tolerable as a package of Great Value’s “Chocolate Twist and Shout Sandwich Cookies”. And a glass of milk.

An Ode to Fluffernutter

In all my years, I’ve never seen an actual fluffernutter sandwich. Until last week. And it caught me by surprise.

At first glance, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It looked like any other ordinary sandwich – just with mayonnaise overflowing from opposite sides of the sandwich. However, upon further inspection and cross-examination, that white stuff that I thought was mayonnaise, was not actually mayonnaise at all, nor was it even close to being a member of the mayonnaise family.

It was marshmallow creme, or Fluff, as it’s known to the diehards. Add peanut butter to the mix and there you have it – a fluffernutter. For sugar lovers, a delicacy. For me, I’ll pass.

I thought it was a made up concoction until I was told it’s been around forever. So why am I just now seeing it?

Probably because I’m not the kind of guy that seeks out marshmallow creme at the grocery store. And also because I’m not the kind of guy that’s wild about marshmallows in my sweet treats. It’s just not my thing.

Marshmallows have been around a long time, being the staple ingredient found in the Moon Pie. But when’s the last time you saw a kid eat a Moon Pie?

Do kids even care about marshmallows? I guess they do, because they’re fun. And they have a great name. Fluffernutter, however, is not a great name. That ranks up there with ‘snickerdoodle’ or ‘shortbread’.

A name can make or break a food. Before you see it or smell it, it’s oftentimes the name that creates that first impression.

Why do you think kids turn their nose up at squash? It’s all in the name.

Mikey may have loved the Life cereal, but I don’t think he liked mushrooms or succotash?

Words matter. Food names shouldn’t be silly or scary or gross. They should make your mouth water. Livermush does not.

I have a rule with food that if I can’t say it or spell it, I won’t eat it. But now I have a new rule. If I feel silly saying the name of a certain food out loud, then I can’t eat it – in public.

There’s only one way where the fluffernutter could become a thing – that sweet sensation that sweeps the nation. I say, turn over all marketing to McDonald’s. Love them or hate them, they are experts in making you crave things you never thought you would. Can you tell me where the McNugget is on the chicken?

I may never eat a fluffernutter (in public), but I could be that guy in the drive-thru ordering a FlufferMcNutterTM off the Dollar Menu.

And you know what? I’ll be lovin’ it.

Reintroducing Myself to my Backyard & Fried Chicken

Prices - this oneTroy was aghast. “You’ve never had Price’s Chicken Coop?”

I was ashamed to admit it. I had never had Price’s.

He then turns to my brother, John. “Can you believe your brother hasn’t had Price’s?”

John remarks, “I haven’t had it either”.

Here we were, two Charlotte natives, and we had never eaten at the legendary Price’s Chicken Coop.

Price’s Chicken Coop has been around longer than I have. Located on Camden Street in the Southend area, this Charlotte landmark has been preparing and boxing up deep-fried comfort food since 1962.

People line up from all around to take home all sorts of fried goodies including fish, shrimp, hushpuppies, and of course, their world-famous fried chicken. That’s the real reason people flock (no pun intended) to Price’s.

Troy got me to thinking. Why I haven’t I been to Price’s yet? What has been the barrier between me and one their boxes of fried chicken all these years?

The sad thing is, I don’t have a good answer. I don’t have anything against fried chicken. We’ve always gotten along great.

I don’t have anything against mountains either, but it took me a long time to hike up Crowders Mountain after living here for nearly eight years.

I have a bad habit of taking local landmarks and attractions for granted. I just assume a place like Price’s Chicken Coop will always be around. After all, what’s the rush to go visit? Old Man Crowder is not moving his mountain anytime soon.

It’s not just me. We all do it. The things that are close and convenient to us seem to get neglected. Why? Because we think it will always be there.

Why hang around your backyard when you can explore your neighborhood? Or your city, or your state, or your country? Or even your world?

I haven’t travelled extensively, but I have seen some things in my life. I’ve climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. I’ve walked down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I’ve even won a nice chunk of change playing a quarter slot machine in Vegas.

But I’ve ignored some of the notable landmarks and attractions where I live. Why? Because I can visit them tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

Or so I think.

You see, I’m not promised tomorrow. And you probably aren’t either.

So here’s my suggestion. You know all those New Year’s Resolutions you made this year about eating healthier and exercising more. Ditch them.

Skip those weekend workouts and take a short road trip to a cool place in your backyard you’ve been neglecting. Leave your calorie calculator behind and try a legendary eatery in your town.

Or do what I’m going to do. Stand in line and reintroduce myself to fried chicken at Price’s Chicken Coop.

Dancing Duck Gets Down From Dusk Til Dawn

You have to give it to the duck. They are versatile little creatures. They can swim, they can fly and if they have to, they can waddle. And now I finding out, they can also dance.

I actually have one of these dancing ducks. She perches right outside my front door doing what she does best – – dancing. And she does this from dusk ‘til dawn. She rests at night. But before you know it, she’ll be back at it again, shimmying at first light.

photo (10)A duck shouldn’t be allowed to have that much fun. Let’s face it, most ducks don’t have that much fun. This one does, and she only cost a dollar.

I’ve always said, if you get an hour’s worth of enjoyment out of a dollar-store toy, then you got your money’s worth.

I like to think of her as my personal Walmart greeter – just without the greeting. She’s a nonverbal greeter. She simply waves hello and goodbye with her hips.

It’s been a couple of months now since I’ve had this dancing duck and there’s no signs of stopping. In fact, it’s not even mine. But luckily my 3-year-old neighbor hasn’t asked for it back yet.

I’m not worried though. If she does, I’ll just distract her by giving her all the Disney princess stickers she wants…

Dancing Duck on Make A Gif