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.