Service dog helps student athletes through rehabilitation at UNC
The most famous dog in college baseball isn’t letting all of this recent attention go to his head. He still does the things he’s always done: opens refrigerators to retrieve Gatorade or water; “whispers” on command; provides a comforting, friendly, presence for North Carolina’s baseball team.
REMINGTON, and, yes, his name is spelled in all capital letters, has become something of a celebrity in recent days and weeks, but he’s still the same 2-year-old golden retriever he has been since joining UNC’s baseball team back in the fall.
“REMI has no idea,” Terri Jo Rucinski, the UNC baseball team’s head trainer and the dog’s master, recently said with a laugh of his burgeoning celebrity. “He’s the same. He’s really the same dog.”
Which is to say, in another way, that he remains unlike most dogs you might ever encounter. What other dog, after all, regularly brings baseballs and water to home plate umpires, or “talks” at the sight of “reading” a sign, or knows how to give fist bumps – OK, paw bumps – to baseball players?
REMINGTON does all of those things. For the UNC baseball team, he does a lot more.
The Tar Heels, the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA baseball tournament, begin play in their regional on Friday night against Davidson. REMINGTON will be there, as he always is, in line with the team during the national anthem, holding his hat in his teeth.
His recent fame – he has been the subject of stories on television and across the Internet – inspired some intrigue on Thursday, an open NCAA tournament practice day at Boshamer Stadium. While UNC finished up its practice, players from Florida Gulf Coast, another team in the Chapel Hill regional, filed onto the field. Some of them had a question: Can we see the dog?
“They’re like, ‘Can he just hang out with us in the dugout?’” Rucinski said.
That’s become the usual reaction at the sight of REMINGTON: People can’t seem to get enough of him, though if there’s one thing Rucinski wishes people knew it’s that they should ask before petting him. He’s a dog at work, after all.
From a West Virginia prison to UNC
This whole thing started more than a year ago. Rucinski, a dog lover who speaks with clear reverence about REMINGTON, is also the coordinator of UNC’s campus health physical therapy department, which helps athletes and non-athletes alike at the university.
Occasionally, a local organization that socializes puppies would bring puppies into her training room. The dogs became quite popular, and Rucinski, who said she’d always “wanted to do something community-based” with dogs, nurtured an idea: What if she regularly worked with a service dog?
At the time, as Rucinski tells the story, members of the UNC baseball team wanted to bring puppies to visit children at UNC hospitals. It was a thoughtful gesture but the players weren’t allowed to do so, because the puppies hadn’t been trained. And thus began Rucinski’s quest for a full-time service dog.
REMINGTON, meanwhile, had already gone through extensive training, which began when he was only days old. He learned many of his commands – he knows more than 100 – in a West Virginia prison, where prisoners worked through a program that allowed them to train puppies.
PAWS for People, an organization that trains and places therapy dogs, originally planned to send REMINGTON to a client in Maryland. But it fell through right around the time Rucinski had sent in her application. And so REMINGTON made his way south, instead, to Rucinski.
They spend their days together, and their nights, but at work REMINGTON is on the clock, providing comfort and affection to those who might be anxious about an injury or about a slump or just about life. Rucinski recalled a time in the fall when a freshman baseball player appeared especially anxious, in his first weeks on campus.
REMINGTON, she said, sensed the anxiety and anchored himself to the player. His teammates all told Rucinski that it helped.
“He’s very intuitive,” she said.
Which makes sense, given that REMINGTON also received psychiatric training, Rucinski said. During Rucinski’s shifts in the campus health physical therapy department, REMINGTON is there to comfort patients who might need it.
Then in the afternoons, with the baseball team, he spends most of his time in the training room, which can be place of much apprehension and stress. Players go there to recover, or to learn more about why something hurts. They go there to feel whole again, and REMINGTON helps, in his own way.
There’s a psychological component, as well as a physical component, having dogs lower blood pressure. And there’s some stuff in the literature that says if you pet a dog for 15 minutes, it’ll change your whole outlook on the day.
Terri Jo Rucinski
“That’s a tough place to be sometimes, especially when you’re having to be in there every day,” said Mike Fox, the UNC coach. “So any sort of good feeling, any sort of good distraction can be a good thing, sort of take your mind off of your injury, or your long rehab, or whatever’s bothering you.”
Indeed, the presence of REMINGTON creates a “homey feel,” said Brian Miller, the Tar Heels’ All-ACC outfielder. Even the guys who aren’t ailing physically, or even mentally, have seemed to benefit from having REMINGTON around.
Rucinski, for one, is a believer in the science that supports the benefits of the presence of a dog. She has read up on it, and she has seen the evidence day after day in her work with the baseball team, and with the campus physical therapy department.
“I’ve seen a difference in rehabs,” she said. “There’s a psychological component, as well as a physical component, having dogs lower blood pressure. And there’s some stuff in the literature that says if you pet a dog for 15 minutes, it’ll change your whole outlook on the day.”
Rucinski is quick to acknowledge another reality: When they go into the training room, players would rather spend time with the dog than with her.
“I’m not as fun as REMINGTON is,” she said.
An expert at sensing stress
This isn’t just a one-year gig for REMINGTON. It’s now his permanent job, working with Rucinski at campus health, and with the UNC baseball team. REMINGTON is the first, and only, therapy dog working with an ACC baseball team, and Rucinski believes he’s the only one of his kind in the country.
She said other trainers have contacted her about how they might implement their own therapy dog programs at their schools. At some UNC home games this season, opposing trainers saw the benefits up close.
More than once, Rucinski said, REMINGTON tried to anchor himself to an opposing player before a game. One time, as Rucinski tells the story, REMINGTON sat down in front of an opposing player, seemingly at random. Rucinski later found out that the player had been taken out of the lineup.
And so REMINGTON is an expert at sensing human stress, and trying to absorb it. It was that way last week when the Tar Heels traveled to the ACC tournament, too.
REMINGTON flew on the team plane, next to Rucinski. The flight into Louisville hit some turbulence, and Rucinski said REMINGTON comforted a passenger whose nervousness was clear.
“It’s interesting how he picks up on things,” Rucinski said.
The players might not always see the deeper meaning at work. To most of them, REMINGTON is something of a team pet: “He’s fun to see every day, he’s fun to come in and play with and put a smile on your face,” said Miller, the center fielder.
Fox, meanwhile, remains most impressed by REMINGTON’s training and skills. If someone holds up a sign that commands the dog to speak, he’ll bark. Tell him to whisper, and he’ll bark more quietly.
More recently, Fox found himself impressed with another of REMINGTON’s apparent tricks: His ability to go long stretches without needing to relieve himself.
The team flew to Louisville for the ACC tournament, but took a 10-hour bus ride back home after it ended. Fox admitted he feared needing to pull over often to let REMINGTON out but, as it turned out, he’d underestimated the dog’s self-control.
“Because the rest of us can walk to the back of the bus,” he said. “So I was probably more impressed with that than anything.”
REMINGTON has a birthday upcoming. He turns 3 on June 13, Rucinski said. She’s hoping he receives the perfect birthday present: a trip to the College World Series.
Davidson at UNC
NCAA baseball tournament
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.