By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend
There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.
Dr. Pinto with her certified therapy dog, Jessie.
Name: Dr. Mary Beth Pinto
Day job: Professor of marketing, Sam and Irene Black School of Business at Penn State Behrend
Personal passion: Pet therapy
One morning a week, Pinto and her dog Jessie, a certified therapy dog, visit physically and mentally challenged students at the Elizabeth Lee Black School at the Barber National Institute in Erie.
The students in the classrooms that Pinto and Jessie visit have a range of physical and mental challenges, but many are diagnosed with Austism Spectrum Disorder.
Pinto said Jessie is used to reinforce, teach, or reward positive behaviors – for instance, making eye contact, waiting patiently for their turn, or using a language card to point to the activity they’d like to do with Jessie.
“Children on the autism spectrum often don’t like traditional means of reward—a hug, touch, or personal attention—but they love to throw the ball for Jessie or take her for a walk around the classroom,” Pinto said.
For some, just petting Jessie is an important lesson.
“Many children with autism don’t like physical touch, but they like to pet Jessie and that can help them bridge that gap,” Pinto said.
“One young boy, Brandon, made remarkable progress with Jessie. When I first met Brandon he wouldn’t make eye contact and he was doing a lot of hand-flapping (a common self-stimulatory behavior in autism). You should see him now. He’s come so far that he’s now walks Jessie down the hall with me to the next class. He makes eye contact and he doesn’t hand-flap when Jessie is there.”
Jessie revels in the attention, though his eyes are firmly locked on Pinto at all times. She’s a well-trained dog. And, she’s in big demand at the Elizabeth Lee Black School.
“She’s gotten to be a little celebrity down there,” Pinto said. “Everyone wants us to come to their room.”
“I asked one of the teachers one time, ‘Long term, what does pet therapy really do for the kids here?,’” Pinto said. “She said, ‘Mary Beth, we live for the moment here. If we lived for the long-range view, we could never do our job because it would be too overwhelming. If, for one moment, Jessie brings them happiness and joy, then we’ve succeeded.’”
Why she volunteers:
“Social service is in my DNA. Gertrude Barber (the woman who started the Barber National Institute) was my aunt and I grew up with kids who had physical and mental challenges. I realize some may think the Barber Institute is a sad place, but it’s not. They celebrate every child. It is a really happy place.”
Have a suggestion for a candidate for a future Secret Lives of Faculty/Staff feature? Email hjc13 at psu.edu.