Originally, Erin Doud-Johnson (01BA), Mali’s owner and a volunteer assistant coach for the team, suggested that a therapy dog could help student-athletes maintain their mental health while dealing with the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. Since joining the team, however, Mali has helped with a variety of other stresses too, including hitting slumps, school stress, and homesickness.
According to the team, she even senses what each student-athlete needs each day, whether that’s playtime at practice, support during a big game, or just some distance. “She has a personal relationship with every team member,” says Maggie Vasa, a Hawkeye infielder.
Finding Mali wasn’t a simple process. Doud-Johnson knew it was important to get a dog with the right temperament, so in April 2020 she adopted Mali from the Decorah, Iowa-based Kimberlee’s Kennels, a breeder known for dogs suited to therapy work.
Then, Mali and Doud-Johnson worked with a trainer for about a year and a half over Zoom to learn the skills the dog would need to support the team, such as staying calm and not getting distracted by hectic environments. The intensive process included nursing home visits to test her skills and a final certification examination by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
Mali’s work doesn’t end with the softball team. Doud-Johnson and Mali plan to visit UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital and share Meet Mali the Therapy Dog, the first book in a new series featuring the pooch. The rhyming picture book by Cedar Rapids author Mary Griffith Chalupsky tells the story of Mali’s journey to the softball team, and Doud-Johnson hopes children will benefit from Mali’s soothing presence as much as the Hawkeyes.
Doud-Johnson also hopes Mali’s example can serve as a catalyst for more therapy dogs in college sports. “I do think that if you looked at our teams in the past compared to where we are now, we’re much healthier,” she says. “For the student athletes, [she’s] a peace of mind.”