Service Dog Earns Honorary University Degree

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog gets honorary masters degree

Story at-a-glance -

  • When Brittany Hawley moved from North Carolina to Potsdam, New York, to start graduate school, her assistance dog, Griffin, was right by her side so they could learn how to become a successful handler/service dog team
  • Diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) when she was a teenager, Hawley suffers from chronic pain, which requires her to use a wheelchair
  • Hawley met Griffin through “paws4people,” a foundation dedicated to raising, training and placing high-level assistance dogs for seniors, veterans, prison inmates, service members and more in need of physical and emotional support
  • Griffin achieved 100 percent attendance to every lecture, internship and library study session with Hawley, his favorite human, turning on lights, opening doors and fetching needed items
  • The now-famous canine was recognized with an honorary diploma for his contribution to Hawley’s academic success, and for his “extraordinary effort, steadfast commitment and diligent dedication”

A 4-year-old service dog named Griffin took his rightful place beside his favorite human as she received a degree from Clarkson University in upstate New York. But not only did Griffin walk beside her as she was handed her degree — he carried his own honorary degree in his mouth as cameras flashed.

Brittany Hawley spent her junior and senior years at the university's graduate school to get her degree in occupational therapy. She insists she couldn't have done it on her own, and advocated from the first day for her loyal Golden Retriever to graduate right along with her, which they did in December of 2018. PetMD noted Hawley's Facebook post celebrating their dual degrees:

"Two-and-half years ago, me and my 'man,' Griffin, moved to Potsdam, New York, to start grad school! We were moving to a new place, learning how to become a working handler/service dog team, learning how to take care of each other, and starting a new adventure together!

Today we finished this crazy, fun, and exciting experience and achieved my dream of graduating with a Master's of Occupational Therapy! … I am blessed that God allowed you to be by my side through the last two and half years. Excited for the adventures ahead of us!"1

By the time Hawley was finished with her schooling, she could legitimately say Griffin had attended every lecture, internship and library study session with her. In fact, the pair attended 100 percent of the classes together. An Associated Press (AP) account noted the now-famous canine's contribution to Hawley's academic success due to Griffin's "extraordinary effort, steadfast commitment and diligent dedication," explaining:

"Whenever Brittany Hawley went to class, her loyal service dog Griffin was there. If she needed her cell phone, Griffin would fetch it. Even when she assisted patients as part of an internship, Griffin was there helping out as well."2

High-Level Assistance Dog Meets Occupational Therapist Trainee

Hawley, now 25, was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (CRPS/RSD), when she was just a teenager. The disorder often causes such symptoms as chronic, spontaneous or jabbing pain, muscle cramps and/or sleeplessness,3 which is why she must now use a wheelchair.

Hawley got Griffin through "paws4people,"4 a foundation founded in 1999 and dedicated to raising, training and placing high-level assistance dogs for seniors, veterans, prison inmates and service members and their dependents needing help with physical, neurological, emotional or psychiatric disabilities.

Griffin was working with inmates in the West Virginia prison system who were being taught to train and place assistance dogs, and that's where the two met. Both worked at Fort Bragg as interns, helping soldiers with impaired mobility and psycho-social disorders. Hawley noted that brushing dogs can help improve a patient's range of motion, and petting dogs helps ease anxiety.

"The inmates allow many dogs to come up to you and let the dog choose you. Some dogs were scared of the wheelchair. Griffin jumped right into my lap and licked me across the face."5

As a pair, Hawley praises Griffin for performing a number of physical tasks for her, such as turning on lights, opening doors and fetching items like her cell phone, which she indicates with a laser pointer. But, "Perhaps more important is the comfort the dog provides amid (Hawley's) relentless, severe pain that causes anxiety and depression,"6 The Wilson Times, a North Carolina-based newspaper, observed.

Griffin's physical and emotional support as a service dog has helped facilitate the fruition of Hawley's plans and goals much more quickly; she maintained that if he hadn't been with her every step of the way, she wouldn't have been able to participate in anything.

Future Plans Always Include Griffin

After getting her degree — and Griffin getting his, which he carried proudly across the stage next to his favorite human's wheelchair — Hawley headed back to Wilson County to study for her board exams. She said that when she goes job hunting, she and Griffin would be a "package deal."

In September of 2018, Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina USA posted on its Facebook page, "Please welcome Brittany Hawley to the Ms. Wheelchair USA family as she represents the Tar Heel State in the 2019 Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant!"7 Touting her platform, Tassels Without Barriers, Hawley's profile photo as North Carolina's representative was not just of herself, but with her canine sidekick, Griffin.

At the close of 2018, Hawley herself posted that her year as Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina included an opportunity to work with "Some of the most selfless, amazing men and women through my fieldwork with Fort Bragg Army Base, which also resulted in making some new friendships ... "

With that came her announcement: "I said 'Yes!' to the most amazing man who brings me so much joy, happiness, and love. I have truly felt God's presence in my life and can't wait to see what God has in store for me in 2019."8 And undoubtedly, her faithful dog, Griffin, will continue with her every step of the way.

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