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NMSU therapy dog inducted into Hall of Fame

On Nov. 18, Elsa, New Mexico State University's counseling center therapy dog, was posthumously inducted into the New Mexico Veterinary Medical Association's (NMVMA) Pet Hall of Fame.

NMSU counseling center psychologist and training coordinator Karen Schaefer and therapy dog in training Nellie, a 4-month-old Newfoundland. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"Each year the NMVMA selects a dog that has performed a heroic act," said Las Cruces veterinarian Sue Miale, president of the NMVMA. "Elsa was nominated not only for the counseling work she has done, but for her incredible strength of character during her fight with her progressive neuromuscular disease."

Elsa passed away from muscular dystrophy in Spring 2006 and psychologist and training coordinator Karen Schaefer is touched by the recognition she is receiving.

"I am very proud and honored," Schaefer said. "The work Elsa did here was exemplary and her disabilities made it that much more poignant. I truly believe she deserved it."

Therapy dogs play a different role than other types of service dogs. To help a client who has problems with assertiveness, for example, the client may be instructed to give a command to the dog to build self-confidence. If the dog is not fully grown, it can serve as an example of how developmental needs change over time. Because of her disabilities, Elsa was helpful in teaching empathy. The client would learn to be sensitive to her pain and how to touch her without hurting her.

Elsa created a homelike atmosphere and was a calming influence, characteristics therapy dogs are known to possess, but Schaefer said Elsa's disabilities added to her effectiveness as a therapy dog.

"When Elsa would get up, it was clear that she was struggling to do so," Schaefer said. "Clients are able to relate to a disability, and Elsa gave them an opportunity to comfort another being. Hopefully, the feelings will spread and be generalized to people as well."

Now, Schaefer is training Nellie, a 4-month-old Newfoundland, to become the new therapy dog.

Schaefer started obedience training as soon as she got Nellie, but to be certified for therapy she must be trained to tolerate situations that are naturally distressing for a dog, including people crying and yelling as well as the presence of large numbers of people, medical equipment, or being gently bumped.

Nellie cannot be tested for certification until she is a year old, which will be in July, but Schaefer is familiarizing her with the counseling center and the university.

The impact Elsa had on clients will be hard to match.

"When Elsa died, there was an outpouring of grief," Schaefer said. "The amount of calls, e-mails and letters we received was stunning. Those who have worked with Elsa in the past will have to shift; Nellie has a different personality."