A Lesson in Love: A Special Education Service Dog
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A Lesson in Love: A Special Education Service Dog

A yellow Lab who survived a tornado has a new life teaching children.

A Dog's Life

The congregation of Heritage United Methodist Church, in Waverly, Iowa, watched with rapt attention. The focus of their interest was a 4-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Annie, who sat at the front of the chapel. Pet tricks weren't the draw, though. Annie held the entire group in thrall just by resting her nose on her paws while her owner spoke at a Wednesday-night service last summer.

People had gathered to listen to Susan Lawrence, Annie's owner, weave the story of her dog's life into a parable about spiritual journeys, rescue and healing by God. According to Pastor Bob Holdorf, the storytelling captivated even the youngest listeners: "There was a 4-year-old girl who is hard to keep in one spot, but she sat watching Annie like a hawk."

Lawrence, an elementary school special education teacher in her hometown of Carlisle, Iowa, has always had a strong faith in God. But she never expected that her pet would lead her down a new spiritual path or that she'd be fielding invitations to address congregations around the state that were, like this one, more than 100 miles from her home. You can chalk it up to Annie's amazing grace, says Lawrence. "God gave Annie a special heart. Maybe her past experiences shaped her."

Adopting Annie

Much of Annie's past is a mystery. What is known is that in May 2004, soon after a devastating tornado whipped through central Iowa, an elderly man heard the sound of barking coming from an abandoned house. Annie was found trapped in the home's basement, which was partially filled with water. "When the sheriff and animal control officers pulled her out, they didn't think she'd make it," says Lawrence. After they got her to the vet, she was put on an IV and treated for shock. Over the next two weeks, however, the dog slowly recovered and was put up for adoption at a nearby no-kill shelter (which guarantees that animals left there will be adopted rather than put to sleep).

Soon after the Labrador's photo went up on Petfinder.com (a database of animals available for adoption), Lawrence stumbled across Annie's picture while looking for a new pet to bring into her life. Her 16-year-old cockapoo, Daffodil, had died earlier that year, and Lawrence had finished grieving. She'd also always wanted a service dog to help inspire children in her special education classes.

The yellow Lab's sad eyes caught her attention, so she went to meet the dog, who bounded from her cage, sat down and looked at Lawrence knowingly. "It was as though she was saying, 'What took you so long?'" Lawrence says.

A Special Education

Annie settled in with Lawrence and her husband, Gary, and soon won over the couple's three children, ages 28, 26, and 21, who live nearby. The Lab was so gentle she would give Lawrence's 1-year-old granddaughter horsey rides. And Annie quickly learned to fetch Lawrence's sneakers for their daily walks. "I call her my personal trainer," jokes Lawrence. "But I also get in thinking and prayer time during our hikes."

On one of those walks Lawrence realized that Annie's experience -- being trapped in a dangerous situation, then saved -- was in her view analogous to God's willingness to offer help and healing.

She shared that notion with youngsters at the Baptist church she attends. Word of Annie's story spread, and last year 20 Iowa churches and Bible camps asked Lawrence to speak.

She also takes Annie to her fourth-grade special education classroom. To prepare, in the fall of 2004 she and Annie underwent the rigorous process of therapy dog certification. Annie mastered skills such as interacting with someone in a wheelchair. "She also did things I never taught her, like knowing how to calm little kids," says Lawrence. "That came from her heart."

Most of the time Annie's presence in the classroom is unobtrusive. She snoozes in the book nook or pads around the desks, her tags jingling. But when Lawrence announces that it's time to read Old Yeller, the children crowd around Annie, their version of the main character, stroking her silky back and scratching her belly.

The children are learning, and so is Lawrence. "As a teacher, I have expectations, and my students may disappoint me," she admits. "But Annie's never upset if someone's not doing his math. She is all about unconditional love." Lawrence's life has changed so much since Annie bounded out of her cage at the shelter. "I never dreamed everything would develop this way," she says. "Thanks to Annie, my faith has been strengthened."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2007.