Feature: Therapy dog handler Elsa

Lawrence University hosts a pet therapy program for students and faculty to come and pet a dog every Thursday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Elsa, the therapy dog handler for this program, usually brings Revere, a golden retriever with “a head like a brick,” on these Thursdays. 

Elsa and Revere’s usual spot is across from the elevator on the third floor of the Warch Campus Center. On Oct. 10, however, Revere was absent and instead Elsa was there with another golden retriever named Breeze. Elsa said that she planned to bring Revere back next week. A circle of students knelt around Breeze and spoke in high pitched, excited voices as they pet Breeze and remarked on her cuteness. 

Revere is a certified therapy dog through an organization called Therapy Dogs International (TDI). TDI (tdi-dog.org) is one of many therapy dog training organizations. TDI’s website says that beyond the obvious joy many get from interacting with dogs, “studies have shown that a person holding or petting an animal will cause a lowering of blood pressure, the release of strain and tension, and can draw out a person from loneliness and depression.”

“[Revere] is very chill, very sweet, just loves to be pet,” Elsa said. Even if he rarely shows his excitement, Elsa explained, “He doesn’t emote very much. The tail doesn’t wag unless you get him going with a toy.”

Before he became a working therapy dog, Revere trained with TDI to build skills like obedience and politeness. When he turned one year old, Revere became eligible to take a test to become certified to work. 

Elsa had known Revere’s owner. She wanted to get into therapy dog work and saw potential in Revere’s laid back attitude for a good therapy dog. Revere’s owner worked with Elsa to train and certify Revere.

Lawrence let Elsa practice with Revere before he could become certified, and now that Revere is certified, he and Elsa have returned to Lawrence to keep working together. Lawrence’s weekly pet therapy is Revere’s first and only job so far.

Elsa said her favorite part of her job is seeing people’s first reactions to Revere. “We’re right by the elevator,” she said, “So the doors open and I hear people go ‘ooooo!’ and get all excited, so that’s fun…”

Elsa also appreciates when people have more emotionally charged reactions to Revere. “You can tell when people have had a really hard day,” she said. “I’ve had people hug the dog and start crying.” She paused. “And that’s all very gratifying.”

Elsa became interested in therapy dog work on college campuses because of how much she missed her own dog while at school and wished she could have had a therapy dog at her school.

Her message to dog owners: “If you already have a dog and they are suitable for therapy dog work… look into it. If [your] dog might have a good temperament for this, it’s not a whole lot of hoops to jump through to get certified. And the dogs love it and the people that you’re visiting love it.”

Owners of therapy dogs need to fill out yearly paperwork and keep their dogs’ vaccinations up to date to keep their certification.