Therapy dogs assist in continued healing at MSU

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — It would be nearly impossible to list all the ways the community has stepped up to support students and faculty at Michigan State University in the year since a shooting that left three students dead and five others injured.

“You don’t think something like that’s going to happen in your area… It’s like wow, we have to pool as a community to take care of our people,” Lisa Bronikowski said.

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In the days, weeks and months following the Feb. 13, 2023, shooting, Bronikowski and her therapy dog Vinnie offered a different yet incredibly impactful type of support.

“When you see what dogs do for people… I would give any of my dogs to give that to someone,” Bronikowski said.

Though she wasn’t sure how students would respond, Bronikowski knew she had to try. She and her dog headed to the Hannah Community Center near campus in the days after the shooting.

“Within 20 minutes, we had seven people in our group just sitting on the floor, taking turns sitting next to Vinnie, petting him and opening up about things that I couldn’t have imagined that were going through their minds,” she said.

Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner.
Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner were shot and killed at Michigan State University on Feb. 13, 2023.

Bronikowski is part of the organization Canines for Change, one of several that offered therapy dogs services to students following the shooting.

“We were all over campus. We were in dorms, we were here at the union, we were in different classrooms,” Canines for Change Executive Director Nikki Brown said.

For nearly two decades, the nonprofit has been providing canine-assisted learning for kids in schools. It started at MSU with providing stress relief during midterms and finals, but in the aftermath of the shooting, students needed much more support.

“Many of us are alumni from Michigan State and are forever Spartans, so I think that was a big pull for all of us. We just knew that the dogs would make a difference and we headed over,” Brown said.

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It wasn’t just students that benefited.

“Oddly, it was therapeutic for the counselors. I heard from most of them that their stress just being there and listening to all of the kids and the students kind of recalling what happened to them that day and they needed to destress and then they were loving on the dogs,” Brown recalled.

Vinnie, a therapy dog with the nonprofit Canines for Change. (Jan. 31. 2024)
Vinnie, a therapy dog with the nonprofit Canines for Change. (Jan. 31. 2024)
Therapy dog Vinnie with handler Lisa Bronikowski (left) and Canines for Change Executive Director Nikki Brown (right). (Jan. 31. 2024)
Therapy dog Vinnie with handler Lisa Bronikowski (left) and Canines for Change Executive Director Nikki Brown (right). (Jan. 31. 2024)

Brown always knew dogs could make a difference, but said she underestimated it.

“The students have reached out to us and asked us, ‘Will you come back? Can the dogs be here full time? Can we get a dog in our dorm?’ That’s not our decision but I think that it amazed me how sad kids walked in the door and then just smiled immediately upon touching the dogs or interacting with them,” Brown said. “We are hoping to be able to have the dogs be a regular part of university. There are other universities that have dogs full time on their campus, and we would really like to be able to partner with the university and do that.”

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Canines for Change was asked to return to campus for the one-year anniversary of the shooting and plans to have dogs in several buildings.

“My hope is that (students) will look forward to interacting with the dogs on campus and doing things with the dogs wherever we’re located, and that will ease the anxiety of the day and the remembering part of how awful the tragedy was. This gives them a little bit of a pick-me-up or a positive thing to remember about that,” Brown said.

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