By ANNE-MARIE BORING
COBB COUNTY, Ga. – A few times a month, children at local area hospitals are greeted by a special, spotted, four-legged friend.
Ember, a 3-year-old female Dalmatian, is a recently certified therapy dog who loves to visit and play with the sick children residing at Marietta and Kennesaw area hospitals.
Ember’s owner and trainer is Cobb County firefighter, Aaron Salkill, 29, who said that a firefighter and a Dalmatian simply go hand-in-hand.
Aaron Salkill and Ember pose in front of a Station 22 firetruck in Cobb County. (Photo credit: Facebook.com)
“When I walk into a room wearing my uniform and Ember is wearing her firefighter’s badge, the kids’ faces just light up,” Salkill said. “They look at me like I’m Superman. It’s the greatest feeling ever.”
Salkill has worked for Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services for five years. He rescued Ember from a local shelter three years ago, when she was just three months old. Salkill said the idea of Ember becoming certified for therapeutic work came to him during a jog on Kennesaw Mountain.
“There was a line of kids waiting to pet Ember, and it occurred to me that if these kids are this excited to interact with her, then children who are too sick to leave the hospital may want to see her too,” Salkill said.
Preparing an energetic, headstrong Dalmatian to become a therapy dog took lots of patience, time and treats Salkill said. After two years of rigorous training and hundreds of hours of practice, Ember passed her official certification testing with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs on her first try.
Salkill got in contact with representatives from Egleston Hospital, Northside Hospital at Cherokee, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Scottish-Rite Hospital, and Ember quickly became a fan-favorite at each location.
“Kids squeal and grin and hug her, I’ve never seen them get more excited than they do when they see Ember,” Salkill said. “The reactions aren’t just limited to children, either. I’ve had everything from grown women shrieking and running toward me, to a stroke victim breaking down in tears from excitement. It’s incredible.”
Salkill said that he and Ember’s first visit to Egleston Hospital will forever be a cherished memory.
“Ember and I were set up in the lobby, and lots of kids were being wheeled down to visit,” Salkill said. “One little girl saw Ember and jumped out of her wheelchair to run as fast as she could toward us. Her mom, tearfully, told me later that it was the first time her daughter had the energy to walk in weeks. I’ll never forget that feeling.”
Salkill and Ember practice their tricks at a local area elementary school. (Photo credit: Facebook.com)
Ember’s time with kids isn’t limited to hospital visits, either. She regularly makes appearances at Cobb County’s Safety Village to help teach fire safety and education to visiting schoolchildren.
Ember is also familiar with local elementary schools and universities. She has been involved with university-sponsored stress relief during “Dead Week” and finals week at Georgia Tech. Salkill said he hopes that he will eventually be able to bring Ember to help relieve students’ stress and anxiety during finals at Kennesaw State too.
“It’s one of the most rewarding feelings to see the positive impact Ember makes on people’s lives,” Salkill said. “I can only hope to spread her happiness to as many people as possible.”