Susan Burney’s two dogs have only six legs between them — but a lot of love to give.
Fawn and Will are TOUCH therapy dogs. Having only three legs has never slowed them down when it comes to delivering love and attention to patients in the hospital and school kids in classrooms. (TOUCH stands for Therapy of Unique Canine Helpers.)
“Kids can see real easily that (Will) is interesting and he’s fun and they want to be around him,” Burney said.
They can also see that Will, a shepherd-lab mix who is missing his front right leg, might need help doing some things like going up stairs.
“In the same way, they can appreciate friends they might meet who have disabilities,” Burney said. “But it’s what’s inside that counts.”
Burney, who taught in the Lindbergh School District for 29 years before retiring in 1999, is a volunteer for Support Dogs Inc., a nonprofit group based in Maryland Heights that trains and provides assistance dogs and therapy dogs. She also teaches children’s literature at Fontbonne University and wrote a book about her first dog, Fawn.
Burney was not a dog person when she met Fawn in 1997. “Dogs jump on you and they get hair all over,” she always thought.
But then there was this brownish, half-grown puppy up for adoption at the Open Door Animal Sanctuary booth at the annual Greentree Festival in Fawn stood out because she was missing her right hind leg, the result of a car accident.
Children were clamoring all around her, begging their parents to adopt her. Burney thought she’d have a home by the end of the day.
“It was the adults who couldn’t see past her disability,” Burney remembered. “They said, ‘You don’t want that dog. That dog has something wrong with it.’ And it just broke my heart.’”
So Fawn went home that day with Burney.
Burney was teaching second grade that year at Truman Elementary School and soon found that Fawn had a knack with kids and adults. Burney would tell her students stories about Fawn and bring her to school for visits. She signed up with Support Dogs, where she and Fawn became a certified team in TOUCH therapy.
The kids encouraged her to write a book. “Fawn’s Story: The True Story of a Special Therapy Dog,” available through Support Dogs, tells of the connections Fawn made through the years with children and adults.
Now Fawn is 14 and retired from the TOUCH program, but she still lives with Burney in Town and Country. A few years ago, someone at a dog rescue group who had read Burney’s book remembered her when another three-legged dog came up for adoption.
Will is missing his right front leg. It was amputated because it hung limp and useless. He is all white with one ear that sticks up and one that flops down.
He was just a year old when he was picked up as a stray. He apparently had never been in a house and had zero people skills, Burney said.
“It wasn’t love at first sight like with Fawn,” she said. Still, Will came home with her. “He was impossible.”
Will eventually graduated at the bottom of his obedience class. But when he’s working, he’s on his best behavior.
“Now he makes a huge difference in people’s lives,” Burney said.
At school, she said, the second graders read to him and write stories and poems about him. He boosts their confidence and sometimes kisses away tears of frustration.
“They sit all around him. They’re lying down with their heads on him. There was one little girl who held his tail the whole time,” she said.
Tillman second-grade teacher Helen Ermel agreed. “The kids love it,” she said. “They don’t mind practicing their reading in front of the dog because he doesn’t correct them.”
Burney and Will also visit other groups to talk about Support Dogs and disability awareness.
Everywhere he goes, like Fawn before him, Will brings smiles helps show people that “nobody’s perfect,” Burney said.
She’s thankful these two dogs that nobody wanted came into her life. Because of them, she found a way to help others that brings her joy.
“It’s almost selfish because you go into something like this saying, ‘OK, I can go help others,’ but it does as much for me as it does for them,” she said.