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How Maggie the dog helps troubled children overcome trauma

Judie Cooper and her dog Maggie, who works as a therapy dog during work hours, gets a hug from her at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health's Anderson Oconee Pickens Mental Health Center in Anderson.
Judie Cooper and her dog Maggie, who works as a therapy dog during work hours, gets a hug from her at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health's Anderson Oconee Pickens Mental Health Center in Anderson. (Anderson) Independent Mail

Judie Cooper doesn’t think Maggie, her 7-year-old Australian Shepherd mix, can read minds.

Some days, she isn’t so sure.

When Maggie meets childhood clients at the Anderson Department of Mental Health Child and Adolescent Clinic, she quickly reads the mood and uses her soft, persistent eye contact to open emotional doors.

“If they’re happy, she’s playful, rolling over on her back to let them pet her and rub her tummy,” Cooper said. “If the child is sad, she just sits next to them and waits quietly. If she senses that kids are afraid of her, she tries to make herself small.”

The techniques, which seemed to develop even before Maggie completed 10 months of training, make Wednesdays special at the health center’s campus for children, where Maggie is a weekly fixture and seemingly in charge of non-verbal communication.

“She seems to understand people so well,” said Cooper, an Anderson resident and counselor at the clinic since 2010. “She’s just very observant and sensitive to changes.”

The keen attention to detail has enabled Maggie to play a major role in what Cooper calls “miracle” turnarounds in two of her clients. Both involved young children who had suffered devastating losses that left them unwilling to talk to adults.

One client hadn’t spoken to anyone since a traumatic event, but ran immediately to Maggie, embracing the dog while crying.

“It wasn’t until the child talked to Maggie that the problem was revealed,” Cooper said. “It’s difficult for kids to talk about serious problems. Maggie develops their trust.”

Cooper, an Anderson resident, does that by providing “unconditional positive regard.

“She has a warmth,” Cooper said, “and that helps kids deal with a lot of things.”

At times, Maggie’s background helps children connect. Cooper found Maggie in a Hendersonville, N.C., shelter.

“I tell the kids that Maggie was adopted, and that she was in foster care for a long time, but she’s smart and has a lot of love,” Cooper said. “They relate to that. When I get new clients, they usually see me as an authority figure, but they see Maggie as a friend. They talk to her, open up in ways they do not talk to people they aren’t sure they can trust.”

Cooper, who in the last seven years has recruited Maggie for help with about 100 clients between the ages of 4 and 18, said one child told her that Maggie “makes me see things in a different way because she has a good heart.” Another said Maggie’s energy “helps me when my mood is drained.”

Cooper, 59, was recently chosen the Anderson-Oconee-Pickens Mental Health Employee of the Year, an award she credits largely to Maggie’s involvement.

“People I can’t reach, she can reach. Some kids come to the front desk and say they have an appointment with Maggie,” Cooper said. “I’m the supporting cast.”

Maggie responds appropriately to at least 150 English words, Cooper said. Very active at home, she is surprisingly sedentary at the office, a change that has a calming effect on youngsters.

“I don’t know how, but she always knows when it’s Wednesday,” Cooper said of her dog’s obvious anticipation level on the morning of her weekly trip to the center. “And she knows she’s working when she has the bandana on.”

At home, Maggie plays the role of the protector. When Cooper’s husband Gary had knee problems, Maggie instinctively pushed him toward stairway railings. Maggie alerts Judie when her sugar level is high – a big surprise, because Cooper didn’t realize she had that problem until Maggie arrived.

Maggie also helped Judie after a traumatic loss. “I got her after mom died, and she seemed to remind me that I can still love,” Cooper said.

Maggie is also an entertainer. She greets youngsters with a handshake and offers high-5 waves when children are celebrating. She’s a devoted Clemson fan who goes into a triple-spin at a “Go Tigers” proclamation. Upon a “Gamecocks” command, she promptly lies down and plays dead.

Jane Jones, chairman of the board of directors at the AOP Mental Health Centers, said Maggie has quickly become an ambassador for the entire organization.

“I had heard the stories about how Maggie has such a calming effect on the kids, even in the stressful situation,” Jones said, “and when she came to the board meeting when Judie received her (Employee of the Year) award, it was easy to see how Maggie can have a positive effect on people.”

Kevin Hoyle, executive director at the center, is a firm believer in Maggie as a therapist.

“For kids experiencing trauma, contact with an animal can draw them out of their isolation in a way that just sitting there across the desk can never do.

“The two of them together,” he said, referring to Cooper and Maggie, “make a really effective combo.”

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