Spirit the dog and Ann Gearhart of Lutherville

Education assistance dog, SpiritSong exhibits her canine manners and training as Ann Gearhart, director of education for the Synder Foundation for Animals, presents her "Human/Animal Bond and Environmental Concepts for Elementary Learners" class to Towson University elementary education majors last month. (Karen Jackson / November 11, 2011)

Lutherville resident Ann Gearhart can only guess that SpiritSong, her beloved 48-pound pooch, is about 10 years old now.

Nine years ago, when she adopted the lanky mixed-breed hound with the soulful brown eyes from the Baltimore County animal shelter, she knew little about her.

The homeless creatures with no names who arrive at an shelter seldom come with a story, said Gearhart, who has been director of humane education for the Hampden-based Snyder Foundation for Animals for 19 years.

"They reveal only that they are alone, disoriented and often fearful," she said.

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The Snyder Foundation, established in 1898 by Benjamin Snyder, promotes the humane treatment of animals through education and philanthropic support.

During the past 19 years, the foundation has awarded more than $2.65 million to 98 Maryland humane organizations in 21 counties, and has invested more than $3.16 million in education of humane, character and environmental topics for students.

The foundation also has invested more than $1.5 million in low-cost spay-neuter programs for pets of lower-income families.

Partners in education

Gearhart is involved in the presentation of some 40 educational programs offered by Snyder. The classes focus on everything from animal safety, bite prevention and how to prevent animal cruelty, to learning about service dogs, bats, sharks, reptiles and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

She usually takes SpiritSong along on her speaking engagements.

Spirit is a certified "education assistance" dog. When she is on duty with Gearhart during lectures and classes, she wears a blue vest with white lettering indicating she is a graduate of Dogs, Ears and Paws, the Sykesville-based state facility that trains assistance dogs for various purposes.

Gearhart and Spirit have presented programs at senior centers and at Timonium, Sparks, Hampton and Riderwood elementary schools, as well as Sacred Heart and St. Jospeh's schools, and the Woodbrook Early Learning Center.

"She consistently provide curriculum based instruction that is fresh, interesting, appropriate and current," said Loch Raven Academy teacher Julie Wadsworth.

When Spirit is not at work, so to speak, "she's a very proud Luthervillian, who prances and dances on the streets on downtown Lutherville," Gearhart. She's considered a celebrity in some places, including the Dunes Hotel in Ocean City.

But when Spirit is working, she remains absolutely still, which is reassuring to some people, especially children, who can be afraid of dogs. Gearhart recalls one time when Spirit saw a stuffed monkey similar to one of her toys at home and just fixated on it. But she didn't move, Gearhart said.

"We are both very serious about our work," she said.

Spirit helps Gearhart explain how assistance dogs can be depended upon to be well behaved; how a dog's body language conveys nonverbal messages; what "endangered species" are and how dogs and cats are not among them; and how important it is to clean up dog poop to avoid polluting the bay — Spirit refrains from presenting a case in point, Gearhart said.

Otherwise, "she prevents things from becoming abstract," said Gearhart.

In the classroom, Spirit's soulful, doleful presence makes the topic of animal abuse all too real.

An expert on the link between animal abuse and crimes against people, Gearhart knows that a child or adult who inflicts pain and suffering on an animal can easily move on to domestic abuse and cruelty to human beings. The community that tolerates animal abuse is equally unhealthy, she said.