Four-legged friend learning to help others
Story by Carol Pappas
Photos by Wallace Bromberg Jr.
Teddy has the kind of face guaranteed to make you smile. Wavy chestnut-colored hair frames a pair of big brown eyes – if you can see them through the hair – that reveal the gentle spirit that resides within.
Around the St. Clair County School System, where he often visits, they call him “Teddy, the Wonder Dog.”
To his owner, Melinda Splawn, director of personnel for the school system, he’s just plain lovable, huggable, affable Teddy whose personality is perfect for bringing comfort to those when they need it most.
Teddy is a Wire-Haired Pointing Griffon who will one day be a Hand in Paw therapy dog, offering that same lovable, huggable, affable personality to people who are in need of a sizable lift in spirits. They may be nursing home residents, Alzheimer’s patients, children in cancer treatment or a weary caregiver. Teddy will be there to brighten the roughest of days.
Teddy’s story begins with a specific search for just the right puppy, according to Melinda. “I wanted one who doesn’t shed. He had to have the temperament for Hand in Paw.” And, because Melinda’s father was an avid bird hunter and she treasured those outings with him, she thought, “if the dog could be a bird hunter, that would really be cool. I didn’t think such a dog existed.”
But as fate usually intervenes in everyday life, Melinda spotted the object of her search or at least the idea of it.
One Saturday, she was at Birmingham’s Pepper Place, an outdoor market, buying fresh vegetables. One of the vendors had a dog with him, and she remarked how “beautiful” the dog was and inquired about the breed.
She asked about his temperament, and the man replied, “He sleeps in the bed with us. He doesn’t shed.” Then, he added, “He loves to swim. He has webbed feet.”
That’s all it took. “Oh my gosh, that dog is wonderful!,” she recalled saying.
Then, she set out to find one just like him. She started looking for online breeders with a simple email message to each one: “Do you have any pups?”
Several answers were “no,” but then she received a reply from a breeder who said he had a puppy, but it was picked out to go to a family with special needs although he was rethinking that decision and would have to know more about her.
Melinda wrote back, pouring out emotions about “my dad’s love of bird hunting, my desire to continue work with Hand in Paw and the opportunity to continue enjoying special times with my dad and brother.”
The breeder said he and his wife spent the night talking about the letter and concluded, “ ‘Your home seems like the perfect place for the dog.’ ”
When she picked him up he was 12 weeks old. Melinda said the longer puppies are with their mother the better it can be. “He bonded with me just that fast. It was amazing.”
But then it was time for a name. She had just watched the Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts, where his family called Teddy Roosevelt “Great Heart” because of his blend of strength, courage and gentleness.
When she looked at her new puppy, she saw the same attributes. “Although he loved to run and play, this puppy loved to be loved on. He was gentle. That’s the Hand in Paw side, gentle and sweet.”
And that was all it took. “I think we have a Teddy,” she said.
Teddy has already demonstrated his gentleness. He diffused a couple of emotional incidents at the school system, offering comfort merely with his presence.
As he progressed toward the Hand in Paw goal, Melinda took him to a trainer, who exposed him to other people – old, young, children. He was exposed to elevators and electric doors, anything that he might encounter on a Hand in Paw mission, to make sure his reaction was positive, even-tempered. Teddy, of course, passed.
An apparently gifted student, he passed bird training, too.
At 2, Teddy is a bundle of boundless energy, regularly galloping at a frenetic pace through the woods at his favorite exercise spot – the cross country course at St. Clair County High School. He disappears momentarily to take a swim in the marsh among the towering reeds. He emerges, soaked, his tongue swinging back and forth like a pendulum.
He’s unmistakably one happy fella. And judging by the looks of him, he is on the trail of making others who need a lift just as happy.