When her vest is strapped on each morning, Max—the part husky, part german shepherd— stops playing and stands erect and focused; it’s go time.
Max is an official service dog. Helping her owner, Dave Gaspardo, a senior psychology major from Washington, deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder and hyper-vigilance from his years in the army, Max is constantly at Gaspardo’s side. Max sits through each of Gaspardo’s classes, and although she can’t read well enough to take the tests, Gaspardo thought it would only be fair for Max to receive an honorary degree from Dixie State University.
Gaspardo took his proposal for Max to graduate to Richard Featherstone, dean of the school of humanities. Featherstone couldn’t find any loophole to offer Max a degree, but instead made her the “official service dog of the school of humanities.”
Photoshoots and a chance to educate students on the importance of service dogs followed, Featherstone said.
“Every year, I want to find something to represent the school of humanities,” Featherstone said. “That’s what Max is. I love how [Gaspardo] is able to go to class and how his dog is such a big support to him.”
Gaspardo said Max can tell when he starts to feel stressed, anxious or at risk for a flashback by smelling pheromones, which are chemicals in our sweat that change according to mood.
“Max is always there for me to keep me focused,” Gaspardo said. “She makes my life so much easier. There really is a strong bond between us.”
Gaspardo bought Max as a puppy nine months ago and trained her. Max was eventually certified as Gaspardo’s service dog and was given an official U.S. Army service dog vest.
“When I put the vest on Max, there’s a noticeable change in her demeanor,” Gaspardo said. “She stops running around and acting like a puppy and stands up straight and attentive. She becomes ready to work.”
Gaspardo said the hardest part of having a service dog on campus is everyone wanting to pet her and play with her.
“If someone touches Max, she can become distracted and won’t be able to help me if I have a episode,” Gaspardo said. “Everyone loves dogs. But please just ask before you just go ahead and pet her.”
Because Max can sense anxiety, she can be alerted when other people feel stressed as well. This is especially apparent during finals week when everyone is stressing, Gaspardo said.
“Max helps others that are feeling stressed,” Gaspardo said. “Just her presence can help calm people down.”
Gaspardo said his goal is to eventually be able to use Max to help people in his own therapy practice.
“After grad school, I want to go to work at [Veterans Affairs] with Max and help others with PTSD and stress problems,” Gaspardo said.
In the meantime, Gaspardo said Max will continue to accompany him around DSU as the “official school of humanities service dog with whatever accolades that comes with the title.”