In case you haven’t noticed, it has been a superhero summer at the box office. The big screen has been inundated with the fantastical and extraordinary tales of comic book characters. Larger than life heroes such as Wonder Woman and Spiderman entertained audiences, young and old, and left us wondering what other Marvel adventures were on the horizon.
Superheroes appeal to everyone. Despite their flaws, we love their nobility, perseverance, and their commitment to defending all that is good with their remarkable abilities. They stir us to contemplate our own strengths and inspire us to unleash dreams of our own possibilities and potential in this great, big world.
Fortunately for us, superheroes are not just defined by what we see on the big screen. According to Liberty Elementary School students, a superhero doesn’t have to be superhuman either. Instead of donning a cape and mask, their hero has four paws, dark wavy fur, and a wagging tail. Dollie Mae, a 6-year-old Goldendoodle, is their hero and she is a certified therapy dog. Her owner, Mary Anne Fabian, is the guidance counselor at Liberty Elementary School. To the students, faculty, and staff, Dollie Mae is a treasured friend. She consistently spreads love and attention, gives help where needed, and gently works with students to brings out their best. She uses her affection and comforting presence to help a diverse population of students work through various problems every day.
Mary Anne wasn’t actively looking for a dog in October of 2012. She had lost her beloved lab and it had taken her some time to recover from his sudden passing. However, her friend had mentioned a Goldendoodle that needed a loving home. Mary Anne wasn’t sure if she was ready for another furry family member, but agreed to meet the dog. She recalled, “Her hair was matted and you could hardly see her face. But I fell in love with her right away on that Friday night. She hopped in the car with us and Dollie Mae came to her forever home.” Firmly believing that God cares about all His creatures, Mary Anne felt that God put Dollie Mae in her life at a perfect time. Can God do His work through a dog? Mary Anne soon found out that He most certainly can. Big plans were in store for Dollie Mae.
Although Dollie Mae was calm and loving, Mary Anne didn’t plan to train her as a therapy dog right away. However, at the suggestion of her assistant principal, she decided that it would be a great idea. Mary Anne explained, “I was thinking how nice it would be for her to be able to come to the school and spread her sweetness with the students and staff. I realized she would be perfect for the job and our district did not have this program in place yet. That is when I began considering the certification.”
It was apparent that Dollie Mae had already received basic dog training. Mary Anne said, “Jane Fink, owner of Anderson Dog Works, did all of Dollie Mae’s training and test preparation.” Dollie Mae exempted her basic command classes. After completing two more courses, she received her Canine Good Citizen’s certification. Dollie Mae was 2 years old when she became a certified therapy dog.
She started visiting Liberty Elementary School in January of 2013. Mary Anne said, “It became immediately obvious that she was in her element.” According to Mary Anne, Dollie Mae happily greets all the students, eager to start her work day with them. She is equally enthusiastic to interact with her teacher friends as well. Mary Anne continued, “Teachers and staff come to our office and sit on the floor with her and play. They will tell her very personal things and even cry. Some staff members will come by because a ‘Dollie Mae hug’ is needed.” The teachers know the immeasurable benefits of Dollie Mae’s presence in their school. Some even spoil her a bit by keeping treats in their desks for her. Others bring her favorite toys from time to time. Such simple rewards for a dog that’s having a tremendous impact!
An important characteristic that enables Dollie Mae to make this impact at Liberty Elementary is her kind and calm disposition. For example, Mary Anne stated, “She has the gift of discerning when a person is upset or worried. If I have a person in my office that is crying, Dollie Mae is very quick to go and put her paw on him or her. She tries to bring cheer to that person in any way possible.” Whether she is offering support for kindergarteners on the first day of school, gently pushing a student to overcome their fear of dogs, greeting nervous parents, or lifting the spirits of weary teachers, Dollie Mae seems to instinctively know what each person needs.
In addition, Dollie Mae often reads with children. In a safe and relaxing atmosphere, students are more eager to practice the skill of reading. Many of the children reading to Dollie Mae have difficulties in literacy and as a result have developed self-esteem issues. They are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of other classmates. By sitting down next to Dollie Mae and reading to her, all threats of being judged are put aside. The student relaxes by a very attentive Dollie Mae, and focuses on the text. Mary Anne remembered, “One student’s reading got better over time and the child said, ‘I think Dollie Mae taught me to finally be able to read!’”
Furthermore, Dollie Mae’s presence is used as positive motivational power to encourage simple learning habits and routines. She makes regular classroom visits with Mary Anne and walks from desk to desk. Mary Anne said, “We tell students that she is checking to see if everyone is on task and following directions.” Mary Anne continued, “Teachers have also used her for noise control by saying things like, ‘Dollie Mae is coming and we want her to see how quiet we can be.’ It is amazing how effective this is with elementary age children.”
Sadly, there are times when the school needs to partner with the Department of Social Services, The Liberty Police Department, or the Pickens County Sheriff’s office. Mary Anne said, “When these community helpers come to meet with a student, Dollie Mae is very effective in reducing the stress of that situation. These adult helpers have commented on multiple occasions that Dollie Mae helps the child stay calm, helps the situation feel less threatening, and she offers the emotional support that is needed.” For example, Mary Anne remembered when a student needed to leave the school to go with the police due to a difficult home situation. She added, “The child asked, ‘Can I walk Dollie Mae to the police car with me?’ The child held her on her leash all the way out of the building and gave her a hug and a kiss before climbing into the back seat.”
Dollie Mae serves people outside of the school as well. She makes multiple weekly visits to Brookdale Central, an Assisted Living community, with her friend, Suzanne O’Dell. Mary Anne said, “Suzanne leads a Bible devotion for the residents in the gallery. During this time, Dollie Mae wanders from person to person and allows them to pet her and love on her. She loves to sit next to residents who are in a wheel chair and rest her head in their laps.” The residents always look forward to Dollie Mae’s visits and enjoy her showing off her knowledge of various tricks and commands. Dollie Mae brings much cheer and laughter into Brookdale. Mary Anne said, “There are residents that seldom engage in conversations. When Dollie Mae is there, these residents will chatter away with her and tell her stories. It is amazing to watch!”
Indeed, the bond between humans and therapy dogs is amazing. They are trained to provide unconditional care, not only to people in Assisted Living communities and schools, but to people in nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, disaster areas, and more. They help people overcome illness, disabilities, and hardships. However, what about the relationship between the dog and the owner? I asked Mary Anne about her special relationship with Dollie Mae.
Mary Anne describes the summer of 2011 as the most difficult of her life. Her father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away three months later. Little did she know, God had a four-legged companion in mind for her that summer as well. Dollie Mae was born during the time of her father’s illness. According to Mary Anne, there’s no coincidence in the timing. It was God’s plan to send her a companion with healing power. While she recognizes it now, Mary Anne admitted, “When Dollie Mae came to live with me, I had no idea she was a part of my grieving and healing process.”
Mary Anne said, “As a follower of Jesus, I believe that He gives us the desires of our heart. He knows of my love for animals and what joy they bring to me. This is why I consider Dollie Mae to be a gift from God. I believe that it was part of His sovereign plan to bless me with her companionship, love, and joy.”
Mary Anne continued, “I love having her in my life and I am thankful every day for the joy she shares with me and others.” From going on hikes and summer boat rides with her favorite people to fun afternoons chasing squirrels and tennis balls, Mary Anne explained, “There isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t make me laugh or my heart swell up with happiness!”
Liberty Elementary School students and teachers couldn’t agree more. Another school year is underway and Dollie Mae is busy doing what she does best: bringing joy, laughter, and happiness to Liberty Elementary School. She is truly a superhero at heart. An unforgettable dog with healing powers and a loving spirit, Dollie Mae’s therapeutic support encourages students every day to overcome their limitations. She is making a difference in the lives of people in her school and community. And after all, isn’t that what a superhero is all about?
Heather Reeves, Challenges Column Contributor
Heather Reeves, a 5th grade language arts teacher, lives & works in her hometown of Liberty, SC. She is a graduate of Clemson University & her family enjoys cheering for the Clemson Tigers. Heather also enjoys gardening, crafting, traveling, & spending time with her husband and daughter.