Kathy Wild first walked the halls of UNLV Health Mojave Counseling 26 years ago, initially as an intern at the youth clinic, then as a therapist and case manager, and, as of a year ago, as the agency director.
Given her decades of work, Wild is more than qualified to onboard their newest – and arguably most popular – volunteer: Mojo the therapy dog.
Mojo, Wild’s three-year-old golden retriever, is showered with countless smiles, waves, and head pats as he walks around the Mojave Counseling campus. Don’t let Mojo’s happy wags and penchant for naps fool you; he is not only a good boy, but also a serious student. He recently completed therapy dog training and certification with Michael’s Angel Paws, a local nonprofit that offers a variety of dog training selections rooted in positive reinforcement.
While therapy dogs are not a new concept — National Geographic posits that one of the first therapy dogs was a Yorkshire Terrier who served as emotional support for U.S. soldiers stationed in the Pacific Theater during World War II — more recent studies have affirmed what dog lovers have known all along: Our furry friends make a paws-itive impact on our well-being. Studies from UCLA Health have shown that interacting with dogs promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, all hormones (colloquially referred to as “happy hormones”) play a part in elevating moods.
Wild, who tries bringing Mojo into the office at least once a week, attests to the benefits that therapy dogs have in counseling and in the workplace. “Some of the clients we see have pretty severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, and a lot of times they'll have a flat affect no matter what you're saying to them. Then they'll see Mojo, and he just greets anyone… It's really nice to see people come alive inside. It really warms my heart.”
In addition to breaking the ice with clients, Wild sees the effect Mojo has on faculty and staff, of whom Wild says, “I feel like I work with a bunch of heroes.”
“Staff are benefiting as much, if not even more,” Wild says. “Everybody's exhausted after this pandemic. Working in mental health is hard on a good day. It can be draining, and there’s a lot of energy to give, so just walking down the hall, people are just so happy to see a dog come in.”
Mojo comes from a lineage of golden retrievers who have been born and raised to help those in the Las Vegas community. He hails from North Creek Golden Retrievers, a group that follows ethical breeding practices and is headed up by Alexy Rollins. To help survivors of the October 1 shooting, Rollins gave away two puppies to survivors of the tragedy, saying in an interview with KTNV-TV, “The best thing I know is that you can recover with a dog. A dog makes you feel better."
For Mojo, the healing genes run deep.
Mojo and Wilide aren't isn’t the only members of the UNLV family to have completed therapy dog training with Michael’s Angel Paws. In March, Kathi Pauli, the school of medicine's manager of well-being and integrative medicine, and Olive, her Bernedoodle, completed the rigorous training to obtain therapy dog certification.
“You're looking at a minimum of 24-plus weeks of training, and then there’s all of the time that you spend working with them at home,” Pauli says of the training, adding that, on top of two tests, the process included trips to the Strip, Town Square, and Green Valley Ranch to see how the dogs would behave in crowded, public spaces.
“It was a lot more work than what I thought it was going to be, but it was a lot of fun,” Pauli reflects, “I think it really helped to bond Olive and me even more, and to see the trust that dogs put into humans was amazing.”
Why commit so much time and energy into earning therapy dog certification? For Pauli, the motivation was to make a positive impact on the community.
“I know what my dogs mean to me and how, after a long day, my dogs bring me back down to earth and are just there to cuddle. I know the amount of happiness that they bring into my life,” Pauli says. “I wanted to be able to offer that to other people who maybe can't have a dog or don't have a dog, and for them to just get to experience that joy even for a little bit.”
The next step for both recent graduates of Michael’s Angel Paws is to get out into the community, spreading love and “happy hormones.”
Wild and Mojo plan to volunteer through a library program that allows children to practice their reading to dogs, and Pauli plans to bring Olive along as she volunteers with a hospice organization and their patients.
No matter where Mojo or Olive’s snouts lead them, they will undoubtedly be delivering service with a smile… and a few wags, as well.