One of UR’s most popular therapists smells like Fritos, pees outside, and doesn’t mind eating baby carrots off the ground.
Sasha, a five-year-old golden retriever, runs her practice out of a second-floor office in the Interfaith Chapel that she shares with her owner — Rev. Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough, UR’s director of religious and spiritual life.
Faith symbol banners, college degrees, and varied curios cling to the room’s cinder block walls, and stuffing its cluttered shelves are hundreds of holy texts and tomes on spiritual scholarship. None of these works are of any concern to Sasha, whose decorative tastes seem more eclectic and (perhaps) a bit less refined: two tennis balls, a stuffed ducky, and a mangled Lambchop toy with rainbow ears adorn her part of the space.
Pull up to her office hours — which run 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays — and the scruffy-around-the-edges psychiatric puppy is liable to greet you with tail wags, happy grunts, and some not-so-subtle demands for pets that won’t relent for anything except shut-eye or her midday walk breaks. It’s this patented charm that has allowed Sasha to meet the needs of the throngs of students who drop in to see UR’s first and most accessible therapy dog in residence, Yarbrough says, even though her introduction to campus was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sasha was Yarbrough’s third golden retriever when she adopted her in 2018 from a Vermont breeder. She wasn’t initially gunning to train a therapy dog, but she saw that Sasha came from a doggy dynasty of sorts, as both of her parents were certified too. The gel between the services of a therapy dog and the chapel immediately clicked, so Yarbrough bit the bullet.
Sasha has been a mellow mutt since the get-go, but the path to her puppy Ph.D still called for three rounds of training.
First was a two-week residential camp in nearby Walworth on the essentials — sit, stay, come, heel, etc. There her penchant for people pleasing revealed itself when, on her very first day, she made a loop around the bundle of dogs in her playpen to greet the kind humans along the perimeter. The quick learner had picked up on a cold, hard fact about this cruel world: Other puppies don’t bear tasty treats.
That training was followed by the American Kennel Club’s eight-week Canine Good Citizen program, where she learned how to stay composed in crowds, to resist reacting to other dogs, and to be comfortable with Yarbrough leaving her side. A five-week therapy dog specific course was the last step in her journey. There she studied approaching people with mobility aids like wheelchairs, tolerating loud noises, and the importance of the “leave it!” command, among other things.
Sasha passed the therapy dog boards at nine months old but couldn’t get certified until she was a year old, so the puppy prodigy had to do a retake in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic postponed her on-campus arrival, but Yarbrough did eventually get to bring her to work, and chapel staff and students consequently fell in love.
“I had this constant stream of students, and so I thought, ‘um, obviously this is meeting a need,’” Yarbrough said. “This is the third year we’re doing this, and she does get a pretty steady stream of friends coming in on the days that she’s here.”
Since then, Sasha’s role at the chapel and in the community has ballooned.
Now, she’s become something of a TA for Yarbrough’s Sexuality in World Religion class. A litany of barriers prevented her from taking on the role in the past — allergies, COVID-19, students scared of dogs, and the like — but this year has worked out. Welcoming every entering student is her primary role. Taking light naps on the couches lining the classroom is her other big contribution.
She has also become an unofficial Hillel mascot, most recently attending their brunch this past Sunday, where Sasha got to worship a holy object of her own — bagels. She also accompanies Yarbrough to the Students’ Association for Interfaith Cooperation’s (SAIC) “cafe” discussions, as Yarbrough is the group’s advisor.
A roving off-campus therapeutic practice is an additional part of Sasha’s repertoire. She sometimes volunteers at the School of the Arts and East High School on weekday mornings, where she is so popular that a private escort ushers her in and out of the buildings to avoid causing chaos during passing periods.
While she is plenty busy, seeing Sasha in action assuages any fears of canine burnout. She is an ardent multitasker, blending work and sleep like a master alchemist. Take up a session with the pup, and you might easily mistake her for a downed trophy buck — if not for the accusatory darting eye glances and warm-but-insistent paw nudges she’ll toss your way if you stop petting her. Sasha doesn’t judge, but she does demand payment for her services.
All-in-all, Yarbrough says Sasha’s been a big boost on a bunch of fronts, but she’s been a particularly great servant of the chapel’s goals of promoting interfaith cooperation and refuge.
“Sometimes I have a whole bunch of students sitting in here with her in the middle, chatting away,” she explained. “We’ve had interesting interfaith conversations, you know, Muslim kids and Jewish kids and Hindu kids all exchanging stories. They’re all meeting people that they wouldn’t have otherwise met, except that they all like the dog.”
Editor’s Note: Sasha’s office hours were originally listed incorrectly as happening on Tuesdays and Fridays rather than Mondays and Fridays.