When you think of therapy dogs, a Golden Retriever or Labrador may spring to mind.
However, Kaya is an Alaskan Malamute who is proof that sled dogs can make excellent therapy animals thanks to their ability to make people smile.
Kaya has been working as the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s therapy dog for the past five years after responding to a social media post.
Having gone through the necessary training and examinations, Kaya has been going to “work” at Milwaukee School of Engineering.
This Alaskan Malamute helps students who need a break from the stress of university life or the pressure of studying for upcoming exams.
We spoke to Kaya’s owner Kat to learn more about Kaya, their work as a therapy dog team and the benefits of animal assisted therapy.
You can follow Kaya on Instagram here (@k9therapy).
1) How did you end up with Kaya?
Our beloved Seamus, a Golden Retriever, passed away. I was so broken hearted and at the eight-month mark, my family said we had to get another dog. I was looking for a Collie, my childhood dream dog. Every dog I thought I wanted just didn’t work out. One day, Bonnie from the Door County Sled Dogs called and she said she had the dog for us. I said no, we don’t want a sled dog, I know how much work they are. Bonnie said – just meet her and see, so we did. Kaya’s previous mom had contacted the DCSD’s for rehoming help. She was moving to California and knew Kaya couldn’t take the heat out there. We met and the rest is history. She was 5 when we adopted her and she is now 12 and a half.
2) What attracted you to the Alaskan Malamute breed?
I never thought I would own a snow dog, so my attraction came after knowing Kaya. Technically, Kaya is a Siberian Husky, Malamute Mix and I always say she has the best qualities of each of the breeds she is made up of. The best Mally parts Kaya has is her personality and expressions and she is extremely smart.
3) What is Kaya’s personality like?
Laughs! Kaya has a big personality! Our job is to make her happy put a smile on her face – every day! She is very expressive, bossy and so funny. She can get mad at you and hold a grudge. For instance, our neighbor gives her treats. Well the first time “Auntie Shelley” dog sat for another dog, Kaya didn’t speak to or take a treat from “Auntie Shelley” for a whole week after the dog left.
4) How did Kaya first become involved in pet therapy sessions?
When we adopted Kaya, I promised her previous mom that I would keep Kaya active with kids – she said Kaya would spend time with the neighborhood kids every night and loved being with them. I thought and thought how could I keep this promise? One day it came to me. I would have a Read to Kaya program. I contacted our local library and they said they would be willing to have us provided we had the proper certifications and that is how I found out about Therapy Dogs. Fortunately we found a trainer that knew the process and we started taking classes to prepare and eventually completed the certification. We have to retest every two years.
5) How did Kaya end up offering pet therapy sessions at Milwaukee School of Engineering start?
The power of social media! I saw a Twitter post from a student saying how stressed they are to MSOE and MSOE replied saying to contact the counseling office. I replied to MSOE with a photo of Kaya saying Kaya was a Therapy Dog and we would love to work with the students. We went through an “Interview Process” and have been “working” for the past 5 years with the students. I say “working” as Kaya knows the difference of going to work or going to school. Even though we volunteer, we tell Kaya she is going to “work”. She takes her job very seriously and loves having the responsibility.
6) What is involved in the average pet therapy session at Milwaukee School of Engineering?
For the most part we visit the week before exams on the 3rd Floor Campus Center. We have our own room and we walk around the Campus Center Floor interacting with students or in our own room. The students come and go like an open house and stay as long or little as they like. We have had therapy sessions where 10 kids sit around petting Kaya and talking or just 1:1 because it is a low traffic day. Other times we wander around and find students and give them a study break. We have been invited for the first day of school and mental health awareness week as well.
This year, due to COVID-19 we have not been brought in as they are trying to limit outside visitors.
7) How have the students responded to their therapy sessions with Kaya at Milwaukee School of Engineering?
Many students miss their dogs so just petting a dog makes them happy. Many have exam stress so visiting with her and connecting with other students is distressful as well. Just having a dog around campus is super cool, as it is not part of the “norm”. People have seen her while they are on the phone and start face timing her to their friends. If we walk or drive around campus, she gets recognized and she gets so excited. She loves the students and they love her – even if it is a brief moment of interaction, many say we make their day.
8) What do you believe are the benefits of pet therapy sessions at universities?
I believe sitting with a dog on campus opens a whole world of social interaction for humans with the pet, but really humans to humans. We have seen as many as 125 students in an evening to just 1. There are so many benefits but it is all of what it means to each individual.
9) Have you seen any unexpected benefits from your work at Milwaukee School of Engineering with Kaya?
One evening there was a big event in another area on campus with free pizza. That evening we had only one student and he just sat quietly petting Kaya and she laid there enjoying the pets. At one point, Kaya reached out her paw and placed it in his hand and that is how they stayed for the remainder of the time. It was very touching and for whatever reason, a lot of conversation was not needed that evening. We were there for the student.
10) What would you say to a student who is struggling with anxiety/stress about trying pet therapy?
As a dog handler and Kaya’s escort I am not able to give students advice but there is always a staff member from the counselling department with us so they can step in and advise the students based on the policy and guidelines of the Universities institution.
11) Do you think all universities should consider implementing pet therapy for their students?
Of course, I think there is a lot more flexibility in a private institution, than a public.
12) Why do you think Alaskan Malamutes make great therapy dogs?
You cannot be around a Malamute and not smile or laugh many times a day. Kaya makes me laugh out loud at least once a day. The Alaskan Malamute is a working dog. They need a lot of mental stimulation and activity and they love to be around people and the center of attention. Being a therapy dog is a perfect job for them!
13) Have you experienced any benefits as Kaya’s owner through this process?
Any job you give a dog makes the bond between an animal and their owner very strong. It also helps give your animal confidence, additional love and affection that makes them a well-rounded, well behaved animal. I am chuckling at the well behaved animal because the Alaskan Malamute is very strong willed and they don’t obey, they comply. They are very smart and you can read their minds. So sometimes you know she is thinking, ‘well OK, I don’t’ want to, but I will do this for you’. They remember people they meet – even if they haven’t seen them for a year and they are always up for a good time. They are very social animals. I wish she could come with me everywhere.