HAMPTON — Near her front door, Melanie Paul keeps a statue of an angel cradling a tiny rabbit.
The angel has only one wing — the other had broken off before Paul spotted it in a hotel lobby and asked to buy it.
“It reminded me of a person or an animal that has a disability and can still give so much to another creature,” she says.
An animal like Lothair, one of the four therapy dogs that Paul has trained and handled since 2000.
The white Shetland Sheepdog was born totally deaf, but he has been a source of comfort and joy for countless local hospital patients and children learning to read.
Paul also is deaf. She lost her hearing at age 12, after misdiagnosed antibiotics irreparably damaged her inner ear over a single summer.
The Hampton woman has never let that stop her, whether in her 30-
year career as an educator and counselor with the Virginia Department of Education, or during thousands of volunteer visits with her Shelties.
She prefers not to tell people that either she or Lothair is deaf until they have already interacted for a time.
Paul, who reads lips, speaks clearly and only learned sign language in college, currently visits four Hampton sites: Langley Air Force Base and Sentara CarePlex hospitals, Cary Elementary School and the
Main Public Library.
Her goal is always to brighten people’s days.
“Humans see other humans each day, but when a dog appears the environment — let me say the ‘electricity’ — changes immediately,” Paul says. “Just petting a dog can bring emotional and mental
contentment, something like doing mindfulness exercises.”
Paul began her volunteer work in 2000 with her late dog Shiloh. During an obedience class, an evaluator from Therapy Dogs International — one of the main accrediting bodies for the animals — noticed Shiloh’s good manners and approached Paul about training him for TDI’s 14-step test.
That covers behavior such as staying calm around other dogs, strangers, unexpected noises and dropped food.
Now retired professionally, Paul since has earned TDI accreditation for Molly, 12, and Locksley and Lothair, both 9. Her dogs work in teams, two at a time, on a rotating basis.
All have completed more than 700 documented therapy visits and received gold pins from TDI, the organization’s highest service
honor. Paul and her dogs also have received multiple other commendations, including from the Air Force, the City of Hampton and the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.
For first-graders at Cary Elementary, Paul’s Thursday afternoon visits are a great source of excitement, says Maureen Houser, a reading interventionist.
“These are kids who are not currently reading on grade level, but the dogs don’t know that,” Houser says. “They just listen. This is something special for the kids after all their hard work.”
Paul has never had trouble with communication and says being introduced as deaf only makes encounters needlessly awkward: “A big ‘oh’ appears on the face of the person, as if I have just grown
horns. Then the individual is often hesitant or assumes I won’t understand them.”
If Lothair gets the same introduction, people tend to get skittish and ignore him in favor of the hearing dog, although he responds in the same loving manner and knows 21 sign language commands.
“He has so much beauty and so much to offer,” Paul says. “No one should focus on his being deaf.”
That said, Paul and Lothair are still a source of inspiration, says Judy Theodosakis, chairwoman of volunteers for the Red Cross at Langley hospital.
There, Paul and her dogs are a welcome distraction for
everyone from busy staff members to scared or bored children.
“She’s so capable,” Theodosakis says. “She’s a great example of someone who has overcome a disability, especially for members of our military who might be dealing with a different type of disability.”
Paul got a taste of her dogs’ power when she went through a serious operation herself in 2010.
Along with her husband, Philip, who is retired Air Force, the dogs “were my heroes,” she says. “Without their unconditional love and support, I doubt I would have made it through as well as I have.”
Also an award-winning daffodil cultivator and photographer, Paul plans to continue her therapy dog work for many years.
“I’ve had people tell me maybe a few hundred times, ‘Your dogs are so beautiful, so wonderful,’” she says. “This just makes my heart sing.”