Finals got you down? Meet the dogs of Vassar College

During my commutes around campus, I am always cheered up by the presence of dogs. You can see them being walked by their owners around the quad. And if you live in Joss, you always see Professor of German Studies and House Fellow Elliott Schreiber struggling to bring his mixed lab—Pepper—into the house.

“Come on Pepper,” Schreiber might say, while Pepper stares contemplatively at a tree. “Come on!”

Despite his occasional aloofness, Pepper loves people. He’s quick to express it by jumping onto passersby when meeting them for the first time. When I visited the family for this article, Pepper pounced on me to the amusement of the professor and his wife, Julie O’Sullivan. They pulled Pepper back, apologizing as I entered the warmth of their home, ornately decorated with lamps and shelves of board games.

“What happens is that he goes a bit bonkers when he first sees people,” said Julie. “But then, once he meets them, he can calm down.”

Pepper came from somewhere in the South, but the Schreiber-O’Sullivan family found him at a shelter in the Hudson Valley. “He was in the shelter up here for three weeks,” said Julie, “and then we adopted him. We don’t really know what he’s had before, so we’re trying to help him with behaviors, because he might be reacting to things that we don’t know about.”

Pepper’s backstory resembles those of other faculty dogs like big husky mix Alberta. “She was found in a shelter in Georgia state, and a group in Connecticut had an adoption fair at a local pet store and she didn’t get adopted,” Research Librarian and owner Gretchen Lieb recounted. “Someone local offered to take care of her so she wouldn’t have to ride back and forth in the van. So, [Adjunct Assistant Professor of Drama] Darrell James saw her being wheeled around in a grocery cart later that week in the Petco by the same person, with a sign that said ‘I’m available for adoption’ and he took a picture of her and put it on Facebook.”

While Alberta, who is getting a tad gray around the ends of her ears, slurped water next to her large bed, Lieb confessed that she was initially hesitant to adopt. “My earlier dog passed away several months before, and I thought that I would wait a year or two so that I could travel and not have to be home at night,” she said. “But I was so taken with the picture of her, especially when her ears were up, that I contacted Darrell.”

Although Research Librarian Gretchen Lieb, above, was initially hesitant to adopt after the loss of a previous canine companion, she eventually met Alberta and the two have been together ever since. Courtesy of Janet Song

Lieb often brings Alberta to work, which helps calm students down before their appointments in Lieb’s office. “Now that she’s older she’s a little more sedate, and she just loves students so much,” Lieb said. “And I find that it helps through a lot of consultation interviews and a lot of people enjoy her visiting with them, greeting them.”

Unlike Pepper, Alberta is not a “jumper” nor a “licker.” While she does get along with people, Alberta does not get along with other pups. “She does bark at other dogs,” admitted Lieb, “and sometimes doesn’t know how to handle herself well with other dogs. That’s just part of having a dog. It’s like people: Some of them do better with people [in general] and certain types of people.” And for Alberta, it seems that she is just a people pup, calm and tolerant with students and faculty, but sometimes aggressive with fellow furry friends.

Courtesy of Janet Song

The same is true for Shayna, a lab/retriever mix whom owner and Professor of Anthropology and Director of Latin American & Latino/a Studies David Tavarez described as a “dignified lady.”

Tavarez commented, “Shayna is a bit of a cranky, aging diva.” Her owner added, “She loves people, but may growl at dogs that come too close without a proper introduction.”

Oscar, whose human is Assistant Professor of Psychological Science Lori Newman, also struggles to get along with Vassar’s other fluffy residents. “He’s not really friends with dogs,” Newman chortled. “But you know who he does like to see, because he likes to see that dog’s owner? He likes to see Bailey, who is [Associate] Professor [of Psychological Science] Bojana Zupan’s [dog]. And they have the office next door to me. So Bailey and Oscar will tolerate each other, because Oscar sometimes gets treats from Professor Zupan.”

Above, Assistant Professor of Psychological Science Lori Newman poses with her child and their dog, Oscar. Oscar may be small, but he is absolutely filled with love. Courtesy of Janet Song

Bailey has other dog friends from the psychology department. Professor of Psychological Science Kevin Holloway told me that Bailey is best friends with his dog ‘Uku. “They see each other regularly,” Holloway stated. In fact, Bailey dropped by to visit ‘Uku while Holloway answered questions for his interview.

Having dogs can brighten any day at Vassar. “They always give you kind of this unconditional cuddle,” Newman gushed. “Like love.” For Newman in particular, her dog Oscar often keeps her and her husband company in their home offices. “He’ll just be there with you as you’re working. So he loves his family unit a lot.” She paused, a smile brightening her face. “Or maybe, [he] is annoyed at us for not going to bed and wants to make sure we go to bed eventually.”

Courtesy of Janet Song

And seeing all these dogs—Oscar, Pepper, Alberta, Shayna, ‘Uku—brightens my days as well. Sometimes on my walks to class, I smile after seeing Pepper at the Deece, sniffing at the bottom of a pine tree. He’s scavenging for food students have dropped nearby. And Elliott is on the end of his leash, calling his name in exasperation.

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