The trilingual therapy dog
Life on UND’s flight line is made a bit easier by Brita, a therapy dog sporting aviator goggles and a bomber hat
By Mackinney Supola
Nothing‘s more relaxing after a stressful and exhausting flight lesson than sitting with a giant schnauzer in dispatch. Especially when that furry friend is Brita the therapy dog, a canine best known around UND Flight Operations for her old-fashioned aviator goggles and bomber hat.
Pet therapy is a type of therapy that uses an animal to improve an individual’s social, emotional or cognitive state. Multiple research articles have shown the benefits of pet therapy in such areas 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 extensive volunteer work around the University of North Dakota as well as in the Grand Forks community. And every third Wednesday of the month, the pair find themselves at Flight Operations to provide comfort to flight students, flight instructors and anyone else who might cross their path.
Johnson was first introduced to pet therapy as a child, when she would bring her dog along with her when she went to visit her elderly neighbor. She has been involved more formally in pet therapy since 2007. She first started with her dog Molly, a white poodle mix, who has since passed.
Brita was originally purchased by a dog trainer in Minnesota, where she was destined to be a breeding dog for future service dogs. However, after Brita was found 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 play a different helping role. So around the time that Brita was found to be ineligible to be a service dog, Johnson — who was friends with the dog trainer — offered to take Brita on some therapy visits.
Within a year, Johnson was given ownership of Brita, and their career as a therapy dog team had begun.
English, German and American Sign Language
Brita was trained in German commands and responds to both English and German. In addition, Brita knows more than 40 words in American Sign Language, due to Johnson being a retired interpreter for the deaf. In 2012 when her dog Molly became deaf, Johnson would continue to communicate with her through sign language, a practice she continued with Brita when taking ownership of her.
When asked to share one of the most impactful moments the pair has experienced, Johnson discussed a visit she had at Altru Hospital with a patient in poor condition whose family was out of town. Upon arriving at the hospital, the nurses were “beside themselves and went to their knees with stress when they saw Brita and hugged her,” Johnson says. (As Johnson noted, therapy dogs in health care settings can very often help relieve stress in not only patients but also staff.)
Brita then visited with the patient for a little while, then the pair left the room to go visit other patients, with the promise of coming back to say goodbye before leaving.
Upon returning, they learned that the patient had passed shortly after their visit. “It took my breath away,” Johnson said. “I was so grateful to bring the smallest amount of comfort to this human being in their dying moment and to bring the last smile to this person’s face.”
Johnson also described her time with Brita spent in the ICU, comforting the families of patients in critical care.
Brita’s first link to UND came eight years ago, when she and Johnson volunteered at a de-stress fest at the Memorial Union. Students would wait in line 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 in other departments and expanded their visits to multiple areas.
Upon learning in the fall of 2021 about the recent death of an aviation student, Johnson called the aviation department and offered to bring Brita to be in the presence of the students. She hoped she and Brita could provide some level of comfort, she said. Since that time, she and Brita have been bringing smiles to flight students through their regular visits to Flight Operations.
Meaning and purpose
“She came into Ryan Hall while I was working,” said a UND aviation student when asked about Brita, “and I was able to see her for a brief time. I love animals, and dogs really help make every day better! It was a bright moment of the day that was needed during a busy week.”
The work being done by Brita and Johnson is all volunteer, though that fact has never deterred Johnson from finding the motivation to go out and help others. “This is something that gives me meaning and purpose, and I get to do it with my best friend,” she said.
When looking to the future, Johnson speaks of being excited to attend and speak at the Aviation Mental Health Symposium, which is scheduled for this week. Brita and Johnson will be greeters at the door of the event, and Johnson is scheduled to give a presentation about pet therapy.
About the author:
A certified flight instructor, Mackinney Supola is working toward bachelor’s degrees in Commercial Aviation and Communications at UND. She’s currently a marketing intern in the Dean’s Office at the University’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.