After delighting the Macalester community since the fall of 2015, Kevin, the original Macalester therapy dog, is heading into a “doggy sabbatical” of indefinite length, as a result of repeated incidents of “leash aggression” against other dogs.
On January 30, a post on the official PAWS@Mac Facebook page informed community members that Kevin would no longer appear with his student handlers for his regular office hours and other commitments due to stress and a need for some re-training. This unexpected announcement took Macalester by surprise, with many students wondering about the reasons behind this decision.
Dr. Stephanie Walters — Medical Director of the Health and Wellness Center, Kevin’s owner and the creator of the PAWS@Mac program – explained Kevin’s state further in an email.
“Kevin’s aggression is limited to only when he is on leash and only with other dogs, never people… And therapy dogs just can’t be growly on the job, even if only two percent of the time,” Walters wrote. “It’s not ok, not welcoming, and puts the handlers in a tough position since he is 80 pounds and not their own dog.”
One of Kevin’s handlers, Rebecca Kline ’18, who trained as a handler in the summer of 2016, had a brief chance to work with Kevin before his sabbatical. In her short time with Kevin, though, Kline was able to notice the leash aggression that has him sidelined for now.
“I could see last summer when we were walking around campus and if we would see a dog, he’d stiffen up and be alert, and if the dog came over, he would growl and bark at it — it wasn’t good,” Kline said.
Despite his calm outward experience as he helped students de-stress, working four shifts a week with up to four different student handlers was challenging for Kevin.
“He usually makes it look easy, but he is working hard to be on his best behavior when on the job and it is tiring for him,” Walters said.
Emma Burt ’17, one of Kevin’s first student handlers, emphasized in an interview that, contrary to some students’ fears, Kevin is in perfectly good health.
Burt was quick to point out that there are three other PAWS@Mac therapy dogs around campus available to interact with students.
“Kevin’s definitely our most popular dog, but we also have Finnegan, Leo and Murray, who will have the same amount of ‘office hours’ time,” Burt said. “I know people have their favorites, but I think they also recognize Leo and Finnegan — Murray not as much.”
Speaking to the steadily heightened status that the fluffy, golden canine enjoys on Macalester’s campus, Burt said, “When we started, people said, ‘Oh a dog on campus, that’s pretty great,’ and since then we’ve seen his popularity — on social media too — grow a ton. On campus, Kevin has become a symbol of Macalester — he represents something that everyone can get around!”
Most therapy teams have only one or two handlers who are also usually the dog’s owners. The bond and responsiveness between a therapy dog and its owner, according to Burt, is extremely important, which is what has made the PAWS@Mac program so unique and innovative.
“The therapy dog with student handlers [instead of owner-handler] is a big experiment — I’m not sure if too many other folks have tried that approach,” Walters said. “I would characterize it as a 98 percent successful [experiment], and I’m still proud of us for thinking outside the box and trying to figure out a way to help Kevin be of service to students without taking away from my role here in HWC.”
Though Kevin is “Macalester’s dog,” Walters is still his owner, and it was from this perspective that Walters approached the decision to give Kevin a break.
“As Kevin’s owner and best advocate, I pulled him away from the student handler stuff until I had a better idea of whether he could be trained out of his leash aggression,” Walters wrote. “He was doing four 45-minute shifts/week — if we return to student handlers eventually, we will back off to just 20-minute shifts or less often, or something to give him more of a break.”
To see if he can return to student handlers at Mac, Kevin will be starting a class in March that will specifically target leash aggression.
Even if Kevin is unable to come back in an identical role, Walters made it clear that he will not be out of students’ lives forever.
“I will make sure to get him out on campus, handling him myself, as often as works for our schedule and his health. He will be a part of the Mac community as long as the community will have him — and in the meantime, he is beloved in our clinic, the staff in HWC have been so welcoming and loving toward him,” Walters wrote.
Walters said she feels that Kevin has both liked his work at Macalester and that he has impacted students in a positive manner.
“Kevin is always enthusiastic about prancing into work, so it really seems he enjoys coming here. Dogs, connection, empathy, social-emotional learning, opportunity for students to be tender and show affection—that’s what comes to mind when I think of his work here,” Walters wrote.