A life-threatening illness in midlife caused Sue to re-evaluate her priorities; she embraced her gift with dogs and founded a nonprofit focused on healing through animals.
Tell me about your background…
I graduated from college with a degree in Communications and began working at a young age. I always enjoyed the corporate world and was Vice President of several departments at The Estée Lauder Companies, in Manhattan, NY for almost 25 years.
Dogs always calmed me down; I learned to talk to with them from an early age, and really listen.
I have always been a volunteer. I watched my mother spend her whole life giving back to our community in New York and began myself at twelve years old by volunteering in our local hospital. I have severe allergies so I grew up with a toy poodle, a wonderful dog named Duchess who lived to 18 years. Dogs always calmed me down; I learned to talk to with them from an early age, and really listen. That’s what counts the most, the listening.
As an adult, I continued to volunteer and served on several nonprofit boards, both as Vice President of Community Outreach and Corporate Volunteer Programs for Estée Lauder, as well as based on my personal interests.
When did you start to think about making a change?
Almost twenty years ago, at the age of 41, I became sick very suddenly. I had a life-threatening illness that made me spend many months in the hospital, and many more recovering at home. I lost almost a year of my life getting my health back.
I knew I was meant to give and that the more I gave, the more I would receive.
I started really thinking about “what if” and “maybe one day” when I was lying in a hospital bed staring at the tiles on the ceiling. I knew I was fortunate to have a career I loved but what was I really meant to do? This was my “aha” moment, when I realized life was precious. I knew I was meant to give and that the more I gave, the more I would receive.
As I was recovering people told me to do less, rest more etc. but I knew the only way to get my life back was to do more and have more responsibility. So when I was just recovered enough to get up and walk to the corner, I adopted the dog that started it all for me, Coco the Love Dog. I needed to be needed and just knew this was the right thing to do.
This very special fluffy white poodle that had so many needs truly saved my life.
I learned everything I know about dogs, life, adversity, strength and compassion from Coco.
For most of her almost 15 years of life, she was an insulin-dependent diabetic, as well as blind and deaf. Without having to care for her and begin this path of therapy work, I firmly believe I would still be sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself. I learned everything I know about dogs, life, adversity, strength and compassion from Coco.
I understand the power of pets and knew I had to share this gift with others.
So when I was able to return to work, I decided to cut back to four days in the office in order to spend the fifth volunteering. And Estée Lauder, my wonderful employer, agreed.
Fifteen years later, at the age of 55, I was fortunate enough to take early retirement. I knew exactly what I would do, where I would move to, and how I would spend at least the next twenty years giving back. I understand the power of pets and knew I had to share this gift with others.
What is your next act?
I am the founder of Love Dog Adventures, the nonprofit animal therapy program I created in Las Vegas. We are on a very exciting path. I moved here with one fluffy dog and we now have 35 dogs and a therapy cat in our program. We are proud to be the only Pet Partners Community Partner chapter in Nevada, which means all of our teams are trained, tested, and registered with the most renowned animal therapy organization.
I also have a for-profit dog training business, Love Dog Las Vegas. My classes are small with only 2-3 dogs at a time.
On the nonprofit side, Love Dog Adventures facilitates our trained teams in volunteering with hospitals, psychiatric units, schools, adult and children’s rehabilitation centers, group homes for disabled youth, and more. I am licensed through Pet Partners as an Instructor and Evaluator and, as such, I train my clients who wish to be part of a Love Dog team.
Everyone deserves to be loved and accepted. Every living being has feelings.
We also have an anti-bully initiative, called Be Cool, Not Cruel, that travels from school to school. We work with very young children, Pre-K to second grade, teaching acceptance, kindness, and celebration of differences through the eyes of the dogs. The children get it and we are in high demand; we hope to raise funds to allow us to reach many more schools. Each child receives a Be Cool, Not Cruel bracelet and other materials to remind them that everyone deserves to be loved and accepted. Every living being has feelings.
Why did you choose this next act? How did you prepare?
When I look into the eyes of a dog, and see something no one else sees, I know I made the right decision and took the right path. My own dogs have all been deemed unadoptable, yet they have changed the way I look at everything. We are all perfect in our imperfections.
I had no choice other than to work with animals and share this talent, one I only discovered after age 40.
I spent 14 years preparing. From the day I returned to work four days a week until the day I retired early, I was planning my next act.
I became a licensed dog trainer and Pet Partners Instructor and Evaluator. I volunteered with Coco one weekday and both weekend days at many facilities, including Lighthouse International’s Child Development Center, as well as a long-term care residence for adults living with HIV/AIDS and a program that served disabled youth. I made the right connections and learned nonstop from the organizations I volunteered with.
We are all perfect in our imperfections.
When evaluating where to live upon my retirement, I chose Las Vegas for several reasons: It was closer to my sister in Los Angeles. I could afford to live there on a retirement income (much less expensive than New York City), have a home, and get another dog (I could only have one dog in my apartment in Manhattan). The weather was better for my heath. And I just love it here!
I was never in a hurry. I wanted to do things right, not fast. But as Coco got older, I knew I either had to make the move soon or wait until she was not there to go with me. And I could not imagine starting a new life without her so, when she was 12 years old, we took the plunge and moved to Las Vegas. I had two amazing years here with her, showing us the way, before she passed away.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family was extremely supportive of my retiring, moving to Las Vegas, starting a therapy program, everything. We are very small, now, just my sister and her family.
My very good friends were supportive but I do think some of them thought I had lost my mind! Why leave such a lucrative career to work for nothing in a small town (compared to New York City anyway)? But once they saw how happy I was and how quickly I made a new life for myself here, they understood completely.
What challenges did you encounter? Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I think it is always difficult to move where you don’t know anyone and make new friends, especially at a later stage in life. It took a year to understand the community landscape, how people perceived volunteerism here, and discover where I fit in. But I have made remarkable friends who share my passion for the work we do at Love Dog Adventures.
There were many times I considered giving up. I often thought I was too old to take on such a big responsibility and guide a team of volunteers. I felt challenged by Las Vegas, which was so different from New York, and by having to start over and build something from scratch.
When I lost my beloved Coco, the most exceptional therapy dog, I thought it would never be the same. But what I learned was that each time I say “never again,” the next dog to enter my life has something even more extraordinary to teach me. The week Coco died, Benny was sent to me.
Tell me about Benny and other special dogs you have adopted.
Benny was a dog who had been returned to a shelter four times in his first year of life – he was deemed uncontrollable, unlovable, and unadoptable. He has become the very best therapy dog, so sensitive, and our specialist for children with autism. He shares some of their issues and teaches us that every living being deserves to be loved and appreciated just the way they are.
Kirby was found on a construction site. At least 10 when I adopted him, he was with me for just four years but made a significant impact on our community. He had eleven surgeries in those four years and then, very suddenly, succumbed to cancer.
The week Kirby passed away, Petey was sent to me. What is the likelihood a 4-pound grey poodle would appear just as I was losing an 8-pound grey poodle? A young girl with autism told me she knew why Kirby had to die so fast… Because he knew Petey needed me to be his last and forever home.
Petey, almost 11 years old when I adopted him, was 3 pounds, shaved down, had to have all his teeth removed and just perfect! Now all of 4 pounds of him and 12 1/2 years old, he is the only dog to work with certain populations and changes lives daily. He is almost blind and deaf and still just perfect to me.
In life, as with loss, if you dwell on the past, you can’t appreciate the present and certainly not the future
What did you learn about yourself through this process? What keeps you going?
I learned the importance of only looking forward. In life, as with loss, if you dwell on the past, you can’t appreciate the present and certainly not the future. It’s easy to become impatient, negative, frustrated. But that does not move you forward. It only gets you stuck. I learned to slow down and appreciate every moment because you just never know what the future holds so you must experience every moment fully.
I learned that each new adventure promises to be the best because it teaches me something. Coco led to Kirby who led to Benny and now Petey. If I had said “never again” and meant it, think about all that I would have missed? Every one of our team members, every client, and every facility we go to for animal therapy teach me something new, every day.
I learned that I too am vulnerable and that it’s ok to show that to others.
What keeps me going is when I a see a person recovering from a stroke hugging my Benny; when a child living with trauma tells Petey her fears; when kids—who can be so unkind—tell me they now know they have to be kind to people and animals; and when people who feel they have nothing to contribute become our very best volunteers and have a purpose again. That’s what keeps me going.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife or get involved in animal therapy?
Do it. I always ask myself “what could be the worst thing to happen if it doesn’t work out?” And the “worst” is never as bad as not having tried at all.
If you’re interested in volunteering in animal therapy, it has to be your passion—not just working with animals, but with people in all types of situations. We enter people’s lives when they are most compromised and fragile. We work with children and adults facing great challenges and struggles.
The animal-assisted work our team does is not simply visiting but always taking it to the next level. We work with physical, occupational, speech, and rehab therapists, as well as teachers and medical personnel, and we can contribute significantly to someone’s recovery. We don’t just bring animals into the mix; we, the humans, are as important, if not more so, to the success of animal therapy.
It’s critical that you identify a program you respect and want to be a part of. I chose Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) because of their strict requirements, their stellar reputation, and their belief that both ends of the leash are critical to the success of animal intervention.
I always ask myself “what could be the worst thing to happen if it doesn’t work out?” And the “worst” is never as bad as not having tried at all.
Does every pet and its owner have what it takes to become an animal therapy team?
I always invite people to a free orientation so they can learn about what we do before making the decision to go with our therapy program. There are many choices out there and we want volunteers who understand the importance of what they do, have a passion for volunteerism, have a strong bond with their animal, and have the ability to be professional.
I will speak with the owner to see if they understand and are open to changing some things up, such as the leash they use. Then I watch the relationship between animal and human. I give them lots of information while I observe. Does the animal appear calm and comfortable in a new setting? Does the animal show interest in me and in our surrounding? Is the animal quiet, relaxed, and innately friendly (not jumping or barking or licking or overly excited)? I look for reliable, steady, confident dogs. Then I do a few tests, like making horrendous noises, to see if the animal startles and recovers. If I think the team needs some basic training, I suggest that, or suggest they can go right into the therapy dog course.
We believe it is not a Right to be a therapy team, but a Responsibility.
I explain what the process is and that there is never a guarantee they will pass. Some programs pass everyone because they paid for a course. But we believe it is not a Right to be a therapy team, but a Responsibility.
And for some, we are just not the program for them.
What does the training consist of and how long does it take?
Our national program, Pet Partners is a bit different from other therapy programs. First, we are not just dogs; Pet Partners also has horses, pot bellied pigs, pocket pets Iike guinea pigs, and more. Also, we require a Handler Workshop, where the client (without his/her pet) will spend all day learning how we handle our animals, how to work with the public, etc. The Pet Partner Evaluation consists of 22 elements (versus 7-10 for other programs) and the handler and animal are scored separately. The handler score supersedes the animal score because we believe it is the human end of the leash we most depend on.
We also require complete re-testing of handler and animal every two years to insure safety and ability to continue to volunteer at both ends of the leash. Our Badges have an expiration date and we must re-test to renew. As an Instructor and Evaluator (two separate functions) I too must re-license every two years.
Animals must be at least a year old and have lived with the Handler for at least six months so they truly understand the animal’s signals and temperament.
We do not permit any metal on our dogs (no choke chain collar, no prong/pinch collar, no shock collar training, etc.).
Therapy dogs are NOT service dogs and are not given full public access. There are many misconceptions; people say their therapy dog is a service dog to be able to bring them on airplanes or into food establishments. Service dogs alert or perform a task to help their owner who has a disability; therapy dogs volunteer with their owners to help others.
When someone passes their Pet Partner Evaluation, we consider it graduating. This means they have their liability insurance and can start volunteering with their animal. They have a Love Dog mentor and never just go out there into the public on their own in the beginning.
How did publishing a book about Coco come about?
Years ago, when I was volunteering with her while still working, Coco became quite popular in New York. She was only one dog with one owner so this was a way for her to reach many more people than we could ever meet in person. Coco the Love Dog is a very simple early reader and the children love that they can learn and repeat it immediately. I have given hundreds away to children, who will never meet the Real Coco, but this way they all know her.
What resources do you recommend?
Pet Partners – learn from the best I always say.
Our Love Dog Adventures site – see who we are and what we do.
And my pet column – there are over 500 articles I have written about animal therapy. If, after reading through these, you still want to become involved, go for it!
One of my favorite books on the subject is: Paws and Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs by Sharon Sakson
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another Next Act in your future?
I am busier than ever. Our “little” program has been recognized quite a lot lately without seeking out any publicity. Huffington Post named me one of their 50 Over 50 for Giving Back and our local news has chosen us several times for recognition.
We are now working towards our 501c3 (tax-exempt nonprofit) status and fundraising so we can do even more for our community, such as scholarships for therapy teams and more resources for our programs. I have been personally supporting us for six years, and, given our growth, this is our next natural development. And I am so proud that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) William S. Boyd School of Law has chosen us as a pro bono client in their Nonprofit Legal Clinic to take us through the 501c3 process.
This journey has led me to exactly where I am supposed to be. Working with animals everyone said were unadoptable and unlovable. Encouraging my team that “you can do this” when they want to give up. Celebrating every graduation and every experience where we know we made a difference.
This journey has led me to exactly where I am supposed to be. Working with animals everyone said were unadoptable and unlovable.
I am so proud that Love Dog Adventures is the chosen therapy program for at risk populations where they have never invited animals in before. That we are the team they trust and know has the most capable human and animal volunteers.
I am so grateful I was welcomed into my adopted state. I am grateful that I see succession so our programs can thrive long after I can no longer manage them.