Canis lupus familiaris. Worker, helper and man’s best friend. For 30,000 years, dogs have held many jobs, from housepets to bomb sniffers. One professor here at Vassar is teaching her animal companion to fill in its own niche role: therapy dog.
Professor of Anthropology Anne Pike-Tay currently owns two dogs, a dachshund schnauzer mix and a brittany spaniel mix. The second, Molly, can often be found in the Dean of Studies Office, and is a welcomed addition for the many students who visit.
While many may just see her as a loved pet, what sets Molly apart is that she is a certified therapy dog registered with Therapy Dogs International.
Molly is three and a half and came to Pike-Tay when she was 18 months old. A rescue from a kill shelter down south, she began basic training when she was first adopted, and eventually, she progressed to therapy dog training. The program, which lasts 10 weeks, is meant to not only train the canines, but test their patience and personality as well.
Said Pike-Tay, “My impression of the testing, the main thing that they are looking for is that the dogs really are able to take any kind of confusion.”
She added, “They make sure that they don’t react, because some dogs are just freaked out by that. Even if they are great dogs, they don’t like someone stepping on their tail.”
Currently, Molly participates in Tail Waggin’ Tutors, a program aimed at helping children improve their reading skills. On alternate Tuesday afternoons, the pair goes to the children’s room at the Pleasant Valley library. People can sign up for appointments to read to Molly or they can just walk in.
“Children just love it because they’re reading to the dog, they aren’t reading to a classroom, so it helps them get more comfortable with reading,” described Pike-Tay.
The Pleasant Valley library has been welcoming Molly since early last fall and sees many repeat visitors, as well as their friends who have learned about the program through word of mouth.
The library describes the program as “perfect for turning reluctant readers into voracious pooch performers.”
This is part of a larger Tail Waggin’ Tutors program in which volunteers go into elementary schools or libraries once a week. Teachers select struggling students to work with the canines. As a student begins reading to the animals, other children may gather around, increasing that child’s confidence.
As the organization Therapy Dog International puts it, “By sitting down next to a dog and reading to the dog, all threats of being judged are put aside. The child relaxes, pats the attentive dog, and focuses on the reading (“Tail Waggin’ Tutors”).
According to Pike-Tay, dog therapy has proved useful in increasing the program’s attendance. She said “We have the same kids coming back like every other week if not every week and they’ll tell their friends about it.”
While many dogs may react negatively to the attention, Molly keeps cool and calm.
“She’s had blocks dropped on her and her tail stepped on and she just turns around startled, but the next minute she’s wagging her tail. So even though she isn’t the quickest responder to the sit command, she’s got the personality that’s amenable to that,” said Pike-Tay.
The biggest challenge for Molly, as a mix of hunting dogs, is getting distracted. If she sees something over in a corner, she may want to run off and ignore her owner’s commands.
“I know in watching other people in the course, that the biggest challenge for them, was their dog getting used to be being handled, their back feet, their tail being pulled. She was really oblivious to that, she would just get excited if she saw another dog coming in,” explained Pike-Tay.
This is not the first time Pike-Tay has been involved with canine therapy. In the past, she had begun training her two greyhounds, neither of whom were certification-ready before their deaths. She did, however, take them to visit nursing homes.
“My mother was in a nursing home and I’d bring the greyhounds up,” she said. “I’ve seen people with Alzheimer’s who are agitated, they’d pat the dog and immediately calm down.”
Pike-Tay also added, “It’s been shown physiologically as well, that when you’re petting an animal, your heart rate goes down.”
This is something she hopes to do with Molly when she has more spare time, and eventually her newest dog whom she has begun training.
Molly is seen at Vassar quite often with her owner, spending time in both the Dean of Studies office and Pike-Tay’s classes.
Pike-Tay notes that the students seem to really like it. Many students who have dogs at home have told her that it makes the classroom feel much more welcoming.
Last spring, her intro class even helped her train Molly by encouraging her not to jump up on them. The class was so invested that Pike-Tay notified them when Molly passed her test last summer.
Ultimately, Molly’s best trait is putting others at ease. Said Pike-Tay, “I think that there’s a calming effect, especially if someone’s upset or going through something that they are uncomfortable talking about. I’ve seen that happen, where they’ll pet her and focus on her and be able to tell me what’s going on.”