Dogs that work come in all forms, big, small, and midsize too!
By Leah Alsept
Wouldn’t you just love to hug a friendly dog while you’re feeling down in the dumps?
Well, that’s what therapy dogs do. They listen to people talk and don’t mind being pet by strangers. The University of Findlay has two therapy dogs on its campus, Maizy and Mishka.
Maizy’s owner, Leah Brant, is an American Sign Language professor at UF. Maizy, three-year-old golden retriever, comes to work with Brant every Tuesdays and Thursdays and sits in her office and hangs out with students all day. The duo also visit libraries, nursing homes, or wherever a therapy dog is welcomed and can help people out.
Brant realized she could use dogs to help students when she taught sixth graders at a middle school.
“I had one student in particular that just, I couldn’t connect with him,” Brant said. “Come to find out he was taken out of [his] home and he didn’t miss his mom. He missed his dog. His dog would protect him from the abusive stepdad, her boyfriend, and he felt like he didn’t have that protection anymore.”
Once she brought her dog Gretchen in, it was like night and day for the student’s behavior. “He laid next to her. He talked to her the whole time; he read to her,” she recounted.
That instance in the middle school sparked the idea of Brant’s doctorate research of therapy dogs on college campuses. Thus, the story of Maizy began. Like any working dog, therapy dogs have to train to become certified in their craft, even if it’s just chilling with students in the library.
“She went through kindergarten and we went to middle school training. That was more, ‘sit, stay,’ [commands], walking on the leash, loose leash walking, ‘leave it,’ all that type of thing,” Brant said. Advanced training came next. “That was a lot of me leaving her and her reaction for me leaving the room so she could be with other handlers. It was leaving things alone so I can take her anywhere and she’s not distracted by other things.”
After that, Maizy joined Pawsible Angels in Findlay, Ohio, and Brant says because the golden retriever was such a good dog, she got her therapy certification in about a week.
“Because of the fact that she wasn’t easily distracted, she loved everybody,” Brant said. “She could sit, she could stay, [but] sitting was difficult because she would want to slide [down to the floor].”
Michele Frank from Pawsible Angels has been training dogs for two decades and founded Pawsible Angels in 2016 after researching the best way to train dogs humanely – and she found that through scientific methods and studies.
“It was all very forceful and we were all making our dogs do what we want them to do,” Frank said about the way dogs were trained when she started 20 years ago. “Scientific based training takes in full account of the state of the dog emotionally and says, ‘if this dog is over threshold, or if this dog is in a fear-based state, obviously no learning is going to take place.’”
Although Maizy is a golden retriever, a dog breed with a friendly, human-centric personality, Frank says that the breed isn’t the most important part, it’s the temperament of the dog.
They just have a certain love for life and a certain temperament and just this joy, vibrancy, and they all like lean into you to be petted. You know, the lean is almost a telltale sign,” she said. “There are breeds that are more common, like your lap dogs, easily picked up easily carried, put on beds and nursing homes,” Frank continued. “But that’s not to say at the same time that the guard breeds [like German Shepherds] couldn’t be a therapy dog.”
Frank says she can even train a dog with just body language, motion, and movements, without so much as uttering a word.
“Now we know that dogs learn hand signals before they learn [spoken] word. We know that they learn pretty much just like humans. Their cognitive abilities are equal to a human two-year-old,” Frank said.
The American Psychological Association even agrees that dogs are pretty smart.
“Suddenly there’s been this breakthrough in the last 10 years with MRI machines and treating dogs much more humanely in scientific studies, where they’ve really sat down and they’ve started to study how the dog brain actually works.”
Dogs aren’t born knowing English or spoken word, but they can be born liking people. Brant would love to see more therapy dogs on college campuses.
“Support services, counseling services, they’re overwhelmed. And sometimes a dog is really something, all you need to kind of, just to bring you down a little bit, to be able to just breathe a little bit.,” Brant said. “Maybe just bring it down enough that you can wait to see somebody instead of like needing somebody right now,”
And Maizy, Brant says, was just meant to be a therapy dog.
“She’s really everyone’s dog. She’s very in tune with everybody,” Brant said. “Wouldn’t it be nice when you came to visit at UF you know, way back in the day, you see this friendly little therapy dog and you can say hi, and they’re like, ‘hey, this is one of our therapy dogs that’s on campus. And if you ever need her, you know, you need someone to talk to you, she’s here.'”