Life on the UND flight line is made a little easier by Brita, a therapy dog wearing aviator goggles and a bomber hat
By Mackinney Supola
Nothing is more relaxing after a stressful and exhausting flying lesson than sitting with a giant schnauzer on an expedition. Especially when that four-legged friend is Brita the therapy dog, a dog best known in UND air operations for her aviator goggles and old-fashioned bomber hat.
Pet therapy is a type of therapy that uses an animal to improve an individual’s social, emotional, or cognitive state. Several research papers have shown the benefits of pet therapy in areas such as patient satisfaction, energy levels, self-esteem, and mood, as well as in decreasing depression.
Laurel Johnson and her 10-year-old dog, Brita, do a lot of volunteer work around the University of North Dakota as well as in the community of Grand Forks. And every third Wednesday of the month, the duo meet at flight operations to comfort flight students, flight instructors and anyone else who might cross their path.
Johnson was introduced to pet therapy as a child, when she took her dog with her when she visited her elderly neighbor. She has been more formally involved in pet therapy since 2007. She first started with her dog Molly, a white poodle mix, who has since passed away.
Brita was originally purchased by a dog trainer in Minnesota, where she was intended to be a breeding dog for future service dogs. However, after Brita was discovered to have a disqualifying genetic condition, she was no longer eligible to be a breeding dog in the service dog industry.
But while service dogs are trained to work with people with disabilities, therapy dogs serve a different helping role. So around the time Brita was found to be ineligible to be a service dog, Johnson – who was friends with the dog trainer – offered to take Brita on therapy visits.
Within a year, Johnson became the owner of Brita and their career as a therapy dog team began.
English, German and American Sign Language
Brita has been trained in German commands and responds to both English and German. Additionally, Brita knows over 40 American Sign Language words, as Johnson is a retired interpreter for the deaf. In 2012, when her dog Molly became deaf, Johnson continued to communicate with her through sign language, a practice she continued with Brita when she took possession of it.
When asked to share one of the couple’s most defining moments, Johnson recalled a visit she had to Altru Hospital with a patient in poor condition whose family was out of the way. town. When they arrived at the hospital, the nurses were “out of their minds and knelt in stress when they saw Brita and hugged her,” Johnson said. (As Johnson noted, therapy dogs in health care settings can very often help relieve stress not only for patients but also for staff.)
Brita then visited the patient for a little while, then the couple left the room to go visit other patients, with the promise to come back to say goodbye before leaving.
Upon their return, they learned that the patient had died shortly after their visit. “It took my breath away,” Johnson said. “I was so grateful to bring any comfort to this human being at the time of his death and to bring the last smile to this person’s face.”
Johnson also described time spent with Brita in intensive care, comforting the families of intensive care patients.
Brita’s first connection to UND came eight years ago, when she and Johnson volunteered at an anti-stress festival at Memorial Union. Students would line up for over an hour to see Brita or one of the other therapy dogs visiting that day, Johnson recalled.
Through these visits, Johnson got to know students and staff from other departments and expanded his visits to more areas.
Upon learning in the fall of 2021 of the recent death of an aviation student, Johnson called the aviation department and offered to bring Brita to the students’ presence. She hoped she and Brita could provide some level of comfort, she said. Since that time, she and Brita have brought smiles to flight students through their regular visits to flight operations.
Meaning and purpose
“She walked into Ryan Hall while I was working,” one UND aviation student said when asked about Brita, “and I got to see her for a brief time. I love animals, and dogs help Really improving every day!It was a bright time of day that was needed during a busy week.
The work Brita and Johnson do is entirely voluntary, although that fact has never deterred Johnson from finding the motivation to get out and help others. “It’s something that gives me meaning and purpose, and I can do that with my best friend,” she said.
Looking ahead, Johnson says he’s excited to attend and speak at the Aviation Mental Health Symposium, which is scheduled for this week. Brita and Johnson will be hosting the event at the door, and Johnson is to give a presentation on pet therapy.
About the Author:
A certified flight instructor, Mackinney Supola is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in commercial aviation and communications at UND. She is currently a marketing intern in the dean’s office of the university’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.