Speak, Baloo!

Ann Lyon Ritchie -

Baloo sits quietly, nonjudgmental, as the students practice.

Baloo, the audience dog cocks his head to one side

Dubbed as techy and entrepreneurial, the typical college first-years are part of the post-Millennial group known as Generation Z. A September 2017 article from The Atlantic also described them as sheltered and reticent—an odd characterization of kids who never knew life without the World Wide Web.

Although adept with texts, snaps, and other smartphone conveniences, Generation Z lacks experience with in-person communication and, the ultimate test of confidence, public speaking.

Speech anxiety is all too common, affecting two-thirds of the population. Carlow University's Rachel Friem, assistant professor of communication, says chairs were empty when the communication faculty offered speech anxiety workshops in the past.

"For some reason, students refused to work on their public speaking skills,” Friem said.

Enter Baloo, a black German shepherd and lab mix who Friem adopted from Paws and Prayers shelter at 10 weeks old. After reading a Washington Post article about audience dogs, she started bringing him to campus. Shortly after, students began showing up for help with presentations.

Baloo sits quietly, nonjudgmental, as the students practice. Sometimes he lies at their feet. Off duty, he is known for offering up his belly for a scratch.

"Many shelter dogs are the most submissive dogs you’ll ever meet,” said Kara Pyo, a trainer at Say It Once Dog Training.

Pyo provided training both at Friem's home and on campus. Baloo became a certified therapy dog in January.

Erika Kellerman '18, a communications and mass media major and a lead tutor in the Hopkins Communications Lab, helped out. Prior to Baloo coming to class, she checked whether any students had a fear of dogs or allergies. So far, those issues have not presented any problems.

“The difference Baloo made was immediate in reducing stress for those who identified with feeling speech anxiety. People’s faces lit up. As soon as he entered, the entire classroom brightened,” Kellerman said.

While Baloo does his part, Friem and Kellerman record their observations. Friem presented their initial findings at the 2018 conference for National Association of Communication Centers in Virginia. The research could someday encourage further use of audience dogs to help others with public speaking.

“For students, public speaking is critical for career preparation. The skills you use for public speaking are the same skills you need to walk into a job interview and convey yourself to others comfortably," Friem said.

Friem added: “For me, well, I love dogs, so I guess I’m teaching by example. I’m always telling my students to do what they love."

this article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Carlow Magazine

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