Chirpy Gordon, PhD, MLitt, MA, BSc; Assistant Warden St Salvator’s Hall; Therapet
Introduced by Mary Stevens
Chirpy Gordon joined the St Andrews community on 21 January 2019, aged 14 weeks. She is a sweet, gentle, and affectionate Havanese/Poodle cross. She also proved to be a precocious learner and having gained her PhD at the age of 11 months, she became a Therapet on her first birthday, 6 October 2019, registered with the Canine Concern Scotland Trust. Facebook: www.facebook.com/chirpygordon
While university degrees require little explanation, the Therapet registration is less well known. Canine Concern Scotland Trust, a registered charity, runs the Therapet Association; to be accepted for registration a dog has to pass a number of tests, both for health and behaviour, while the owner also has to have a police background check with substantial character references. The basic idea is that dogs make people feel better. Substantial scientific research exists showing the benefits of interaction with animals: my own understanding of this is that the animal–human interaction causes all sorts of bio-chemical goodies to swoosh round in the human brain and blood stream, causing the human to feel that life is an altogether nicer experience.
The big buzz word in academia is, “impact”. So what is the impact of all this biochemical swooshing with its concomitant tail wagging and smiling, and will it get you a job? Let me take you through a few of Chirpy’s experiences in order to equip you to make your own assessment.
The second day she was in St Andrews I smuggled Chirpy into the Community Hospital. I didn’t really think this was betraying my own good behaviour record, specially as although I had thought no-one had seen her come in hidden under my jacket, two nurses instantly rushed into the room to ask about the puppy. My mother was dying. For six weeks Chirpy lay on my mother’s bed every day for most of the day, with my mother often resting her hand on the soft fur of the puppy. Chirpy delighted staff, our family, other visitors, and I was even asked to take her in to other patients. In one room I was asked to visit, the second patient told me rather brusquely that she didn’t like dogs. I stayed on the other side of the room with the patient whom I had been asked to visit. Gradually the second patient began to come out of her shell. By the time I left she had the puppy in her hands and was burying her face in the soft puppy fur, smiling with a new look of peace. On one famous occasion Chirpy ran into the wrong room and hid under the bed of another patient. Both the patient and the nurses laughed a great deal even though the puppy was so timid that one of the nurses had to crawl under the bed to rescue her. (Months later by sheer chance I met the family of this patient on the day after he had died. They shared the memory of that one little moment of lightness and laughter.)
Chirpy is now registered to visit the hospital, but her NHS paperwork was just on the point of completion as lockdown began, so although she had made some return visits after my mother’s death, she hasn’t yet been back in an official capacity. Eventually she will return to visit the two wards in our community hospital.
We made one visit to Stratheden, and would love to go back, but sadly the journey on public transport is so long and inconvenient that it is not the best use of dog-therapy time. Chirpy made her first visit to Rymonth House in March; she will resume regular visits as soon as the regulations for the pandemic permit. One of the proudest moments of my experience as a dog owner was when I held her beside one of the residents in Rymonth House and one of the staff held the man’s hand and helped him to stroke the dog’s back – and the man, still with his eyes closed, smiled.
Yet that moment is surely matched by the innumerable occasions when people have come up to Chirpy in the town, on the beach, on University property, and just chatted, played with her. I have seen them smile, relax, laugh, have fun with her. It has been the most incredible privilege to meet so many people who stop and chat, sharing weather predictions, small talk and joys, also profound sorrows and anxieties.
Chirpy’s main engagement is with students and University staff. This is in part because she lives opposite St Salvator’s Hall of Residence and lawn, and is indeed an Assistant Warden of the Hall. During normal term times Chirpy meets students by chance almost every time she leaves my flat, often a couple of dozen a day. In addition, she is available for appointments with anyone who wishes, meeting either in the Byre or outside somewhere. At busy times of the terms she might be meeting students by appointment once or twice every day, either on their own, or two or three together. She has also been involved in official Therapet engagements organised through the Students’ Association. Sometimes students are simply missing their own dogs, or feeling homesick. Sometimes they may be suffering from stress or anxiety. Sometimes they just want a complete change of pace and dynamic. Dog and students may chase around on the lawn like lunatics; they may sit and stroke or cuddle her; they may throw a ball, or try to get her to demonstrate her various tricks.
Along came lockdown and it all had to change. Every day Chirpy did a live stream on her Facebook page. Hundreds of people watched as she did or didn’t learn and perform new tricks. She did learn to go up to the camera and give it a gentle nudge with her nose to say ‘hello’. On enthusiastic days she sent the camera flying, so we got a view of the ceiling or the underneath of a table, or something. But we couldn’t go to Rymonth House, or the Hospital, so I dyed my hair pink and together we became a fundraising act, eventually raising nearly £1,060 that was divided between the Community Hospital (via Fisher and Donaldson!), Rymonth House, and Stratheden Hospital.
What does it all mean to me? My own academic field concerns what it means to be human in the light of religious faith. I had some pretty lofty ideas. Now I look at Chirpy; I look at the people I meet through her; look at them as they respond to her; now I just smile and I wonder…