Huskies with Heart

By Bridget Twohig

Marisa Landau and her dog, Kaya, are bringing a deeper meaning to canine loyalty.

Landau, a senior psychology major, is developing a guide of 90 nonverbal cues that will enable severely disabled people to communicate commands to their service dogs using only facial movements or minor sounds.

Although Landau majors in psychology, she said her true passion is animal behavior. Northeastern does not offer this as a major, but it is a lab in the psychology department. Landau said she “basically picked (her) major based on that one class.”

Since Landau cannot take an entire selection of courses based on her interest, she compensates by basing her co-ops around it, and found both of her co-op jobs without any assistance from the school.

Family ties helped her find her most recent co-op at Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization that breeds and trains golden retrievers and labrador retrievers on site to act as service dogs for children and adults with mobility impairments and various disabilities.

Landau’s great aunt donated the money to help get the company started and with one visit, Landau said she knew she wanted to work there.

“I loved the idea of working with animals, but also helping people,” Landau said.

“The dogs provide companionship, break down social barriers and (carry out) physical commands, such as opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights and retrieving dropped items,” said Tib Holland, director of development for Canine Assistants.

After about 18 months of training, the Canine Assistant dogs are able to respond to over 90 different commands, Holland said.

While working at Canine Assistants, Landau trained service dogs, helped with presentations and assisted with training camps throughout the year where recipients were matched with their dogs and taught to handle them.

“Some of these people are so disabled or completely paralyzed to the point they cannot speak, so they will come in and get their service dog, but still have to rely on their parent or their caregiver to communicate to the dog for them,” Landau said.

Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants, had the idea of training a service dog to respond to nonverbal cues, and asked Landau if she would run the research program.

At an adoption fair about six months ago, Kaya, a black lab mix with a bubbly personality, seemed like the right fit for the program, Landau said. The choice was also lucky for Kaya, as she was to be put to sleep the next morning if she was not adopted that day.

Since then, Kaya, a quick learner, has picked up 20 nonverbal commands, including knowing to retrieve dropped items and switch the lights on and off with just a glimpse from Landau.

“She is very intuitive to my facial movements, especially to my eyes,” Landau said. “If I tell her to watch me she knows I am going to tell her to do something, so she looks at my face to see what I want her to do.”

This is Landau’s passion, but it is not easy, she said. She has a full course load and is president of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority in addition to training Kaya.

“I manage my time really well,” Landau said. “I spend equal time with the dog, with the sorority and with school. I come home between classes to train her and walk her. I have about three sessions a day with her, ranging from 20 minutes to an hour, so she keeps up with her training.”

The research with Kaya is also part of Landau’s courseload, as it counts as a research project for an honors class she is taking.

Ruth Bork, Dean and Director of the Disability Resource Center, said service dogs are an asset to the disabled community, but sees additional safety issues for severely disabled people who are unable to communicate with and discipline their dogs.

“Even service dogs can go off on their own, and for a person who is completely dependent this is a serious issue,” Bork said. “It is a safety issue.”

Landau said she hopes when the template she is working on is complete, it will provide the severely disabled with a little more independence.

“Her dog will be a great example,” Holland said. “We will know the limits of what we can and can’t do with the nonverbal cues.”

Landau said she hopes her research will literally open doors for the disabled community.

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