Therapy dogs take care of their people at West Virginia University

Three WVU therapy dogs, Marlon Brando, Gretel and Omega, serve similar purposes on campus: to soothe, relax and make students, faculty and staff comfortable.

A furry white Australian Labradoodle trots toward a student whose arm is outstretched with an open palm bearing a doggie treat.

“C’mon Brando,” a student calls, hoping to entice Marlon Brando, the therapy dog for the West Virginia University’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering, to play.

Another student beckons Brando to roll over – a trick she taught him. Others simply hold out their hands as they are walking by to graze the back of Brando in the crowded hallway.

Marlon Brando is one of three therapy dogs at the University. The others are Gretel with the Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services and Omega with the Reed College of Media. All serve similar purposes: to soothe, relax and make students, faculty and staff comfortable.

And all three have their own Twitter accounts: you can follow Brando at @WVUDogfather, Gretel at @Gretel_Labradoo and Omega at @WVUMediaHound.

West Virginia University is among other top universities, including Yale University, Harvard University and Columbia University, who employ therapy dogs as a stress-relief mechanism.

The intricate bond between people and dogs has been studied for years – and continues to be.

“There’s something about a dog and a person being together that is hard to describe,” said Lindsay Parenti, who operates the service dog training program Hearts of Gold within the University and teaches two related courses. “It may be something that science may never be able to figure out because we might not ever be able to measure it.”

Research has suggested the dog-human bond can benefit overall mental, physical and emotional health, as well as reduce stress factors, Parenti said.

Hearts of Gold, a nonprofit service dog training center in Morgantown, trains service dogs primarily to aid mobility. Many breeds can be trained as a therapy dog, Parenti said, though some – such as golden retrievers or yellow labs – tend to have a calmer demeanor and lack aggression. The program uses the classes at the University, as well as a program in a local prison, to train the dogs.

Gentle Gretel
Gretel, the black and white Labradoodle at the Carruth Center, has a kind and calm demeanor. However, at age 2, she weighed only 42 lbs. – far too small to work as a service dog.

Deb Beazley, a counselor at the Center, was approached to become the therapy dog handler in hopes that adding a therapy dog would make the Center more welcoming. In the summer of 2014, Gretel became the first pooch at the University poised to greet students and anyone else who frequented the Center.

“It’s like a gift you can’t imagine; we’re a team,” said Beazley, who has worked with a local kennel club and owns another therapy-certified dog and was a natural fit. After completing training, she became Gretel’s official handler and handles all expenses for her new pet.

“She’s delightful; she’s allowed to wander any place she’d like to wander, and we have little square tubs on the front desk with a label on them to engage her for treats.”

The small boxes contain a list of commands to “sit,” “shake” and “down” plus a treat inside for once she completes the tasks. Clients can get a quick visit from Gretel with just a shake of the box.

Beazley said she is sensitive to those who don’t wish to have the dog nearby, but more often than not, clients will request Gretel sit in on a counseling session.

“I have a two-person loveseat. The client will sit down, and I will say ‘on,’ and Gretel will get up and lay on their lap. People just love to pet her while we talk,” Beazley said.

Parenti said when she was approached by the Carruth Center requesting a therapy dog, she was interested to discover how a dog may be useful.

“We’re always interested to find out why a therapy dog here is important,” Parenti said. “We really don’t want it to become this fluffy, squishy, we-just-want-a-dog-around. We want them to serve a real purpose and go somewhere they’re needed. And the Carruth Center is an obvious fit.”

Gretel is a calming force in therapy sessions, as she keeps clients hands busy and allows them to relax.

“She just knows when a client needs her,” Beazley said. “It’s amazing.”

Big-hearted Brando
Brando took a different path to the program.

Born in Australia, the Labradoodle moved to North Carolina as a puppy and was about 2 when he was donated to the program. His previous owners wanted a place for him to retire where he could interact with people.

While his temperament was relaxed and a good fit for a therapy dog, his completion of the service dog program would have taken much longer considering he didn’t begin as a puppy – and as a service dog, he would’ve been assigned to one person primarily.

Cue Michelle Poland, in whose office Brando can often be found lounging.

Poland operates the College’s Engineering Learning Center where she advises 200-300 freshmen. Since assuming her position in June 2013, she has focused on the overall well-being of students. One of her students came to her during midterms.

“The student was going through a rough time; she was homesick – she was from a different area of the country that is not at all like Morgantown,” Poland said. “We both cried. She left and got some help at the Carruth Center, but I didn’t feel like I had done enough,” she said.

“Engineering students have a tough schedule – combined with normal freshman stuff like homesickness, it makes for a very stressful environment. Students feel like every test is a final, and if we can take just some of the pressure off, it helps.”

After six weeks of training, Brando was officially assigned to Poland in March 2014, joining Poland’s family complete with four cats and two kids. Now he accompanies her to work every day.

“He’s so sweet, and he gets along with the cats and kids,” Poland said. “He makes a difference not only at home, but also at work. We’re looking to see how he’s affected retention or grades, and so far, we’ve seen a positive response.”

Brando lumbers around the Learning Center as students trickle in and out during the day. Some take him for walks. Others feed him doggie treats – or he’ll place his wet nose on treats, like their lunches, they sneak into the lab.

“A lot of times, students will come here just to see him – to sit and play with him for a few minutes,” she said.

Often it’ll be just a quick pet on the way to or from the center, while others seek him out during a study break. Year-round, as students are studying for exams, Brando is being sought for a few moments of relaxation. The few moments spent together, though, always make students light up, Poland said.

Josh Boehner, a freshman engineering student, found a friend in Brando after deciding to attend West Virginia University under stressful circumstances.

“A week before we moved in, my father was killed in a motorcycle accident, which was very hard,” he said. “Coming to West Virginia University, I instantly met Brando; Brando was that outlet for me to just relax and help me feel better and be able to cope.”

Brando is just like Boehner’s dog at home, he said.

“In a school of 30,000-plus students, Brando can be theirs, and Brando can be everyone’s dog, so they can feel more comfortable, away from home – no matter what they’re going through,” Boehner said.

Brando’s social calendar gets quickly booked with group visits, house calls to dorms and conferences.

“We’ll try to fit in as many events as we can, as long as it fits with my schedule,” Poland said. “It’s amazing, he has his own appointment schedule – even my email signature involves him now.”

“He’s become my best friend,” she said. “And I think he’s doing the same for our students.”

Outgoing Omega
Omega, the newest member of the therapy dog team, is an elegant, black standard poodle who can be found prancing through the Reed College of Media hallways.

“Having therapy dogs is not something we want to make ‘trendy’ or to do it just because it’s nice to have a dog around – we want to place therapy dogs in places where they’re needed,” Parenti said. “When the Reed College of Media approached Hearts of Gold, they expressed to us the rigorous coursework and strict deadlines their students adhere to. So, Omega, was a perfect fit.”

Omega stands tall and fits the physicality of a service dog, but her love of people had her approaching everyone who walked near her path.

“As a service dog, they are not to solicit attention. The dogs are to stay with their person and attend to them,” Parenti said. “It was clear Omega would be happiest in an area where she could interact with people all day long.”

She does just that.

Diana Martinelli, associate dean and professor, is Omega’s official handler, so she – like Beazley and Poland – handles food, shelter and Omega’s schedule.

“She’s my dog, but I get to bring her to work every day to share with others,” Martinelli said.

While new to campus, Omega has already been attending meetings, visiting classrooms and gliding through Martin Hall. A quick glance of the black and silver pup dashing through the hallways or down staircases can be caught Monday through Friday.

“Kids who miss home will come in my office and say ‘I miss my dog so much,’ and they can walk her around,” Martinelli said. “Their faces ? they just smile. You can see that it’s just a little piece of home for them and makes them more comfortable.”

The three dogs are often found at events around campus and are available to attend meetings, conferences and more.

While adding some wagging tails on campus is fun and draws the attention of students and employees alike, Gretel, Brando and Omega serve to relieve stress, add comfort and reduce tension.

The dogs’ gentle demeanors and kind dispositions can help in times of need – when students are leaving home for the first time, when finals are tough or any other personal situation. It’s what they’re here for.

It’s hard not to smile with man’s best friend.

Story by Candace Nelson
University Relations/News

Video by Scott Lituchy
University Relations/News



CONTACT: University Relations/News

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