Profile: Dr. Joann Nichols, Faculty, and Beauty the Therapy Dog
I had the opportunity to meet with Joann Nichols, an Associate Professor of Education, at the McKay Complex building. While I was there, I interviewed Joann Nichols on her partner-in-crime, Beauty the Therapy Dog. Although Beauty wasn’t with her owner at the time, Joann Nichols provided interesting facts about her third golden retriever. Beauty, according to Nichols, is a very intuitive dog, and she’s the most communicative pet in her owner’s household. Like all therapy dogs, Beauty is very popular among younger audiences, and she projects an amazing aura. Whether she’s on duty or off duty, Beauty will always lift your spirits with her presence.
Beauty’s job as a therapy dog is to provide comfort and bliss to those who are coping with emotional and mental distress. Beauty first started her career when she was only a year old, which is surprising since most therapy dogs don’t begin their training until they turn two years of age. Since Beauty is a well-disciplined dog, she isn’t quick to latch onto whomever she comes across. Instead, Beauty approaches people, both young and old, in a subtle, careful way. Nichols shared a story with me about a girl who was very sensitive around dogs. The girl was unfortunately mauled by a dog at a very young age, and that dreadful encounter prevented her from having an enjoyable experience with Beauty. Interestingly, Beauty understood the girl’s hesitant feelings. So naturally, Beauty turned over on her back and placed her paws up to the girl’s knees. Beauty’s actions encouraged the girl to feel around the dog’s fur, and the two ended up getting along. This scenario shows that Beauty is an expressive, affable, and gregarious dog who knows how to engage with kids on her own.
Joann Nichols believes that there’s a spiritual quality to dogs when it comes to their presence around people. Beauty has, and continues to have, a beneficial impact on children, regardless if they speak English or not. This has proven to be true when Joann Nichols and Beauty encountered a young boy with an uncommon Asian dialect. Not only did the boy communicate with only sign language, but he also didn’t have any books to use for studying. Despite being in a poor position, the boy had taken a liking to Beauty; he sat down with the therapy dog and found himself reading his very first book to her. In a separate interview with Savannah Hippert, an editor for the Research Live newsletter, Nicholssaid: “He has really brightened up to [Beauty], and will come and sit with her, and brush her with one hand, and flip through a book, and mouth words with the other hand. So he’s kind of using her as a comfort mechanism to get into what has to be frightening in his situation. So we’re seeing great things like that."
Even to this day, Beauty remains a mystery to Joann Nichols. She can’t figure out how her dog is able to transform the lives of so many children. Kids, who originally were having a difficult time reading, are now doing it with ease. In fact, children don’t want to read unless Beauty is by their side. To see if Beauty was the sole reason why kids were improving in their literacy skills, Joann Nichols conducted an experiment at Pawtucketville Memorial Elementary School with seventy-five second-grade students. She had a group of children read aloud to Beauty, and Dr. Nichols told me that the results on both the tests and pre-tests were positive. Students were more effective readers reading to Beauty than reading by themselves. Teachers at Pawtucketville Memorial Elementary School were so impressed with the results that they requested more therapy dogs to visit the classrooms. However, this has been difficult to achieve because some children have serious allergic reactions around dogs.
Beauty’s presence as a “listener” helps children improve in their self-confidence and public-speaking skills. Reading to dogs takes the pressure off of a child when they stumble. Francine Alexander, the chief academic officer at Scholastic Corporation, said: “Kids have to practice, practice, practice to be good readers. And yet, when you’re practicing, if you make a mistake, it can feel risky and uncomfortable. But if you’re practicing with a dog, you don’t mind making a mistake” (Claiborne an Brundige).
What I found interesting during my interview with Joann Nichols was that instead of using the word "disability," she described the children in her stories as “culturally disadvantaged.” According to Dr. Nichols, children who are culturally disadvantaged come from various demographics where there is no real emphasis on reading at home. For the children who were at a "disadvantage," or at a different reading level than others, Beauty served as an advantage for them. She helped children overcome their difficulties, and she never criticized them; she just sits back and listens.
Joann Nichols had overwhelming praise for her golden retriever. During the interview, Joann said: “She is...I want to say the word 'ambassador,' let’s call it, just a model. She is...she is an animal...animal model of what humans should be.” I was truly honored to meet with Joann Nichols in person. Even though I didn’t have the opportunity to meet with Beauty, Dr. Nichols painted a clear picture of what her dog was like: exuberant, loyal, and vivacious. Children of all ages love Beauty, not just for her soft fur, but for her bubbly and energetic personality. Students, like myself, value Joann Nichols not just for her wisdom, but for her commitment to helping kids succeed. The two are a force to be reckoned with, and the Fitchburg community will forever be grateful for their contributions.
Claiborne, Ron, and Wendy Brundige. "Study: Reading To Dogs Helps Children Learn To Read." ABC News, 2010, https://abcnews.go.com/WN/study-dogs-children-learn-read/story?id=11428770.
Hippert, Savannah. "Better Reading Through the Beauty of Listening." Research Live, Feb 2020, <http://www.fitchburgstate.edu/uploads/files/Research%20Live%20Feb%202020%20FINAL%2 0EFILE.pdf>.