In order to provide another level of support to freshman engineering students, West Virginia University’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources is seeking help from a furry friend.
Marlon Brando is a five-year-old Australian Labradoodle. Born in Australia, he moved to North Carolina as a puppy and is now a member of the “staff” in the College’s Engineering Learning Center. He will be officially introduced to the College and University communities at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 20 at a reception in the Engineering Sciences Building.
Michelle Poland, freshman engineering adviser, has been focused on caring for the overall well-being of students since she started her position in June. She spearheaded the effort to bring Brando to the College and has completed training to be his handler.
The idea for a therapy dog first popped into her head when a coworker brought her dogs in to the ELC this past October. Poland observed a lot of students’ heads pop up, noticing the dogs.
“A bunch of people looked up and were smiling. And I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.’ So I started looking around to see how we could make this happen,” recounted Poland.
Research has shown that human-animal interaction can benefit one’s overall mental and physical health, reduce stress factors and improves one’s overall mood. WVU is among other top universities that use therapy dogs, like Emory University, the University of California-Berkley, Columbia University and others.
Brando will not be the first therapy dog at WVU. WVU’s Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services has a dog, named Gretel, always on site. When Poland asked for feedback about Gretel, she was pleased at how positive it was.
Hearts of Gold, a nonprofit service dog training center in Morgantown, W.Va., donated Gretel to the Carruth Center. Poland contacted the organization to find out what she needed to do to bring a therapy dog to the College and was elated to hear that the organization wanted to donate Brando.
Hearts of Gold trains service dogs, which are dogs trained to provide mobility assistance. Sometimes, a dog is not quite suitable for this service, but has the right temperament to be a therapy dog. While Brando is a fully trained service dog, he has been mostly employed as a therapy dog, visiting children’s hospitals, nursing homes and juvenile detention centers.
Any breed of dog can be a therapy dog, according to Lindsay Parenti, a trainer for Hearts of Gold, provided they “like people and show no signs of fear or aggression.” Therapy dogs are evaluated by a behavior test to make sure they react appropriately to stimuli they may face during their work.
Once the dogs are trained, the dog is matched to the venue and handler. The owner is trained to become its handler through multiple training sessions including basic behavior analytic principles, command training, health care information, field training and finally a certification exam.
Now that Poland has successfully completed the training program, she is Brando’s official handler and she will pay all the expenses one would normally incur for owning a pet.
“Brando is mine, which means I will pay grooming fees, vet bills, food, toys etc.,” she said. She is also his voice on Twitter, where his handle is @WVUDogfather.
Poland’s goal is to make the ELC a place to provide services to help students in all aspects of their lives, not just academics. As a mom, Poland sees students as more than just people here to earn a degree and that the freshman engineering program should provide more than just academic support.
“There’s more to being successful than just tutoring students, we have to meet their needs,” said Poland. “If a student is stressed or homesick, they aren’t going to be successful academically.”
Brando will be the first big step in providing emotional support to freshmen engineering students. Poland also plans to take counseling classes through the College of Education and Human Resources so she can be better prepared to provide emotional support as well.
“We’re great at academically supporting our students and I want to make it more of a holistic support for our students,” she said.
CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.