Rescued blind dog becomes therapy dog
This article appeared in Best Friends magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine by becoming a Best Friends member.
On a warm July evening in northern Minnesota, four children sit in a circle around a dog with fur as golden as the sun. “Let’s tell Faith about a time we were bullied,” one of the older boys suggests. He then describes the humiliation of having once been cornered by peers and locked in a bathroom stall. One by one, each child shares a story of being hurt, abused or misunderstood — a painful moment they may not have felt comfortable sharing with family or friends, but feel safe telling this sweet dog, so aptly named Faith.
Some fidget, running their fingers through Faith’s soft fur. She cocks her head from side to side, listening attentively, almost seeming to wait for just the right moment to nuzzle a trembling hand or place her head tenderly in a warm lap. Of this well-timed tendency, her person, Kim Forsythe of Carlton, Minnesota, says: “Faith always perks up when she hears a child speaking.”
Rescued dog turns therapy dog
Today a certified therapy dog, Faith was rescued from an abandoned shed when she was a puppy. She is a loving and gentle presence, possessing an innate ability to sense and seek out those who need her most. It’s a skill aided not by keen eyes, but rather by a beautiful heart. After all, Faith is blind.
Kim and Faith visit One Heartland, a camp in northern Minnesota, every Tuesday evening throughout the summer months. It’s a special place — one that welcomes youth from across the country, offering sanctuary to those who have been stigmatized for a number of reasons, including being homeless, having HIV/AIDs or being a member of the LGBT community. One Heartland provides life-changing experiences for kids facing social isolation or health challenges.
At this summer camp, participants find a safe place where they can be themselves, explore and heal — and Faith is right there with them. “We love having Kim and Faith visit every week,” says Jill Rudolph, One Heartland’s national camp director. “Faith is a great example for our campers that even if you face challenges, you can still help others and have a wonderful life.”
Although she is six years old, Faith is energetic and puppy-like. But once her therapy vest is on, she focuses on the task at hand — helping those who need her.
Adopting a pet with special needs
Kim and her husband, Dean, are no strangers to the special allure of pets with special needs. They know that these pets are every bit as deserving of love and a forever home as any other animals. And, in Faith, they recognize the lovely connection that forms between their dog and children who are looking for someone to relate to, who are looking for a trusted companion, and who can see themselves in Faith.
The couple adopted Faith, who was blind at birth, when she was eight months old, and both had previous experience with visually impaired dogs. Kim once had a dog who was blind in one eye, while Dean’s previous dog lost his sight late in life. When they adopted Faith, they knew that, blind or not, she was the dog for them.
Accommodating a blind dog
Bringing home a new dog who was young, energetic and blind would require a bit of preparation, so the couple set about “Faith-proofing” their home. They relocated breakable items and moved the coffee table out of the living room to create more space. On Faith’s first day home, Kim and Dean led her around the house, all the while audibly identifying things and places as they walked: “living room, kitchen, back door ….” Their reconnaissance efforts worked, quickly. Only a few hours later, Faith made her way down a long hallway and found her water dish — solo.
More than five years later, they continue to keep their house clutter-free to accommodate Faith’s special needs. If they move furniture, they are sure to show Faith around so she can adjust. Like most blind dogs, Faith has an amazing ability to map out her environment, adapt and problem solve. The nose knows, as they say. When they’re out and about, Kim serves as Faith’s eyes in many ways, so maintaining trust and communication — as well as using cues consistently — is vital.
All told, though, Faith’s lack of sight has not impeded her quality of life. “Faith is one of the happiest dogs I’ve ever met,” Kim says. “She never lets anything get her down. When she hits a bump in the road, she learns from it, shakes it off and moves on.” Plus, in addition to being a certified therapy dog, Faith has taken part in numerous training classes, including search and rescue and nose work — evidence that she’s quite the smarty-pants.
Therapy dog is a natural healer
When it comes to interacting with other dogs, Faith of course can’t pick up normal canine visual cues, such as play bowing, the posture a dog assumes to indicate that he is ready to have fun. As a result, it can take a bit of time for new dogs to adjust to her. But Faith and Teddi, the family’s newest rescued dog, connected almost instantly. “Faith’s joyful nature works wonders with children and dogs,” Kim says, laughing. “She’s now helping Teddi overcome her past. Faith is patient and tolerant and helps redirect her sister’s focus and energy.”
As a dog who so willingly embraces the role of confidante and comforter, Faith has had many heart-melting moments. Kim’s favorite involved a little girl who attended One Heartland’s camp specifically geared toward kids living in transitional housing. The young girl was tiny, with shoulder-length brown hair that covered her eyes, and she was somewhat more hesitant than her fellow campers.
While the others eagerly shared stories, she was quiet and content just being near Faith. She answered questions politely in her soft voice, but kept her head down, all the while grasping Faith’s leash like a security blanket. Faith stayed by her side for nearly two hours. The simple beauty in the power of their nonverbal bond moved Kim in a way she’ll never forget. “Faith naturally gravitates to the shyest, most withdrawn or sad child,” Kim says. “She’s a natural healer.”
Have a little faith
With that in mind, it’s a good thing that Faith and Kim are eager to spread this healing energy wherever it’s needed. In addition to One Heartland, the duo participates in stress relief therapy on college campuses and they visit group homes for troubled youth. Kim never seems to tire of the transformation she observes as people realize that Faith is blind and that she, like them, has encountered obstacles. Time and again, as people interact with Faith, it seems to dawn on them: If Faith can overcome, then I can, too.
Perhaps at no time was this revelation more swiftly apparent than on a recent visit to the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth. Led through the crowded student center by a friend and guide, a young blind woman sat down in front of Faith. She placed both hands on the dog’s face, stroking her fur, tracing her ears, spine and tail, seeming to find peace in this connection with a dog who so powerfully, yet gently, gives others hope and helps them to heal. And if that’s not the wonderful magic of faith, we’re not sure what is.
Photos by Lisa Johnson and Kim Forsythe