MORGANTOWN â Jim Brennan didnât necessarily look jittery when he positioned himself in the front of that WVU classroom on a cold, snowy Friday last January.
Striker, though, knows how deep these waters can go.
Thatâs why the 4-year-old golden retriever took up a position of his own. He plopped his head and snout on top of Brennanâs foot and draped a paw around his leg.
It looked like a classic study of canine repose â except that it wasnât.
Thatâs because Stryker was working the whole time.
âSee, thatâs what he does,â Brennan said, there to educate the audience on the emotional benefits of service dogs.
Brennan, who lives in southern West Virginia, is a veteran who went on several stressful deployments in the military. One of his jobs was to clean up at the sites of deadly plane crashes in war zones â often knowing that his buddies were on board.
He also suffers from an auto-immune disorder that can trigger stress, and its fight-or-flight response, in a blink.
âStryker knows Iâm a little nervous right now,â the soldier said, as he nuzzled the pupâs ears. âWhat heâs doing, is calming me down.â
Laura McCray doesnât know Stryker, but the WVU student made sure Monday afternoon that his spirit was shining through in the windows she rendered clean and streak-free at the offices and kennels of the Hearts of Gold Service Dog Training Facility, near Morgantown.
Stryker is a product of that facility, which sits high in the hills of the WVU Animal Science Farm on Stewartstown Road.
McCray, a freshman from Clarksburg who will study exercise physiology, was among several newcomers to campus taking part in service learning outreach for Welcome Week. The first day of the fall semester is Wednesday.
Other students workedÂ Monday on projects at North Elementary School in Morgantown and on historical renovations in neighboring Grafton, in Taylor County.
âI actually hadnât heard of this place until today,â McCray said, âbut service dogs are awesome.â
Brennan isnât the only one enjoying the therapy of such a canine. Inmates at Morgantownâs Robert F. Kennedy Federal Correction Institution also train dogs for Hearts of Gold, along with students enrolled in WVUâs pre-veterinary program.
Window to empathy
The kennels were quiet Monday as the students set about scouring and cleaning. Canines normally housed there were kept elsewhere for the day.
Hearts of Gold, meanwhile, is academically housed in WVUâs Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
Lindsay Parenti, a certified trainer with the program, said she appreciated the students being there that day.
âThereâs always something to do up here,â she said. âWe can use the help, for sure.â
Outside, the walls, with their windows meticulously, cleaned by McCray were cheery. Their murals depicted service dogs with smiling children, wheel-chair users and soldiers in uniform.
Inside was more of the same, even with the bars of the kennels.
Gage Zurcher, who is also majoring in exercise physiology, was polishing those to a high shine.
Muscled and tall, and wearing a âCaptain Americaâ T-shirt, Zurcher, who hails from Oakmont, Pa., is a big guy in love with a little dog: The family pooch, a pint-size terrier named Peyton.
âWe had to put her down a couple of months ago,â he said. âShe was too sick. And she was 15. I miss her. She looked like Toto in âThe Wizard of Oz.â â
He wouldnât mind spending more time at Hearts of Gold, he said.
This past January, Brennan said Stryker has a heart of gold â and that heâs the one getting the payoff.
âIâm at West Virginia University talking to yâall,â he said then.
âBefore, I was hiding behind the shades in my house.â