Puppy Love

Children with disabilities adore Penn State Behrend marketing professor Mary Beth Pinto’s therapy dog, Jessie.

Mary Beth Pinto and her therapy dog, Jessie

In the 1980s, when Mary Beth Pinto was writing her doctoral thesis and beginning her career at the University of Maine, one of her greatest pleasures was visiting local nursing homes with her therapy dog, Tanker, and seeing the happiness the black Labrador gave residents.

“After the passing of Tanker, there was no time for another therapy dog, with kids and the myriad of other responsibilities I had at that time,” says Pinto, a professor of marketing at Penn State Behrend, “but 10 years ago, when my youngest was 14, I decided to begin my journey again to train a certified therapy dog.”

That dog is Jessie, a 10-year-old Shih Tzu–bichon mix with a gentle, friendly disposition, who is a source of comfort and enjoyment for children with disabilities. Jessie attended numerous training classes and after certification by Therapy Dogs International, has been accompanying Pinto to the Elizabeth Lee Black School, part of the Barber National Institute, in Erie, Pa. (a private school with a highly structured classroom designed to help children with disabilities reach their highest potential), helping them learn social skills through weekly interactions and class visits. Jessie quickly became a treasured friend of the students, who range from preschool age to young adults, and of the faculty and staff, too.

“We’ve done all sorts of things, from helping kids understand how to get dressed and comb their hair to learning about the weather and celebrating their birthdays with them,” Pinto says.

Quick to bring smiles to the children’s faces, Jessie is a calming presence in all her human interactions, Pinto says. Children look forward to her visits—and Pinto simply loves the dog/child dynamic.

“I’ve always loved the quote by Audrey Hepburn, ‘The older you get, you discover that you have two hands—one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others,’” she says. “Jessie enables me do just that.” Pinto, who is retiring from Penn State at the end of June, also takes Jessie on library visits and to after-school programs for children from underprivileged backgrounds.