Devon Wallick had written nine drafts of his commencement speech. He had recited it for his professor, delivered it to his roommate and practiced it in front a mirror “about 1,500 times.”
But Wallick, a 22-year-old about to finish a master’s degree in accounting, had not yet rehearsed in front of Dexter.
So on a recent Monday, he appeared at American University’s business school for a 3:30 p.m. appointment with the pooch, an English springer spaniel with giant white paws, soulful brown eyes and floppy ears that are soft to the touch and, apparently, good speech-listening devices.
“Who says I have to pick between a love of people and a love of numbers?” Wallick asked, kneeling to pet Dexter as he read from the address he would deliver that weekend to fellow graduate students at the Kogod School of Business. The dog, reclining on a leather bench, licked Wallick’s right hand until it glistened.
The saliva was, you might say, just part of Dexter doing his job. He is one of eight Washington-area canines on the business school’s roster of “audience dogs,” a volunteer corps whose main duties are to be attentive and nonjudgmental sounding boards for university students nervous about presentations they must eventually give to humans.
The program began last year and is thought to be the first of its kind at a U.S. university, said Caron Martinez, director of the Kogod Center for Business Communications. She is also the owner of one of the audience dogs, Reggie, an 11-year-old whom she describes as a “pinch-hitter.” Other team members are Ellie, a photogenic Bernese mountain dog who loves apples, and Noche, a black Pomeranian who looks like a tiny bear. All are “local, average” dogs with no special training, Martinez said.
Martinez cites research on the calming effects that dogs, even unfamiliar ones, can have on people, although she said she knows the science on this topic isn’t rock-solid. But the dozens of students who have participated – and any AU student with a presentation to deliver can book 30 minutes with a dog – have reported a notable decrease in nervousness on post-session surveys, she said. And besides, Martinez noted, the best way to ace a speech is to rehearse.
“How do you get students to practice? Any way you can,” she said. “Dog or no dog, that makes you a better public speaker.”
Wallick, a confident, friendly Rhode Island native who already has a post-graduation job lined up at Deloitte, said that’s what he figured when he signed up. His speech had been chosen from among several submissions, and a few thousand people, his relatives included, were expected to be in the audience to hear it. The largest crowd he had previously addressed numbered about 1,200, and that was during high school.
Dexter, of course, was just one dog. What help could he be? Rob Cheek, the graphic designer who owns him, said the pup’s lifelong love of people, plus a very focused gaze, are his strong suits.
The pair was recruited by Martinez after she spotted them walking on campus. Now, when they make the 10-minute walk from home to campus for an audience-dog session, Dexter is “tugging me, literally pulling my arm off, the entire ascent up Massachusetts Avenue,” toward the school, Cheek said.
But just in case Dexter needed extra motivation, a bag of chicken treats was on hand during Wallick’s appointment. Wallick briefly laughed during the first of two readings, and he later explained that was because the pooch “just looked completely uninterested in what I was doing.” But overall, he thought it was helpful to be able to make light of what “has been a very serious process.”
Not everyone has embraced the program. There were bureaucratic hurdles to launching it. For a while, the pooches could only enter the business school through one side door; that rule has since been loosened. But a third person must always be in the room with the dog and the speech-giving student, and the dogs must always be leashed and adorned in a red bandanna identifying their role. Students sign a waiver acknowledging the “inherent risks in being near, handling, walking or petting any animals.”
And then there are the staff and faculty members who think the whole thing is “a gimmick,” Martinez said. But when asked whether students come because the canine counselors are, well, very cute, she was firm.
Most participants are business students, and they are “efficiency and transactional-minded” people who would not waste their time merely on cute, Martinez said. Wallick jumped in at this point to agree.
“It’s very much a cost-benefit analysis,” he said.
In the 3 p.m. slot that day was Sasha Gilthorpe, the undergraduate commencement speaker for the public affairs school. She would be speaking before about 4,000 people, which was, she admitted, “like, a very large number of people.”
Her audience was Noche, who belongs to an AU law student. He wore a blue and yellow collar and the official red bandanna, which fit more like a cloak on his small body.
Gilthorpe, 21, said friends encouraged her to sign up for the session. Her mother told her that she would know she had given a bad speech if the listening dog fell asleep.
Her address began with negative news about millennials, which Gilthorpe quickly countered by saying they “resemble the greatest generation.” The speech turned inspirational, with a story about her great-grandfather, a Ukrainian immigrant who made some of Baltimore’s best crab cakes even though his kosher diet prohibited him from ever tasting them. By the end, it was soaring.
“Fight with courage, not for celebrity,” Gilthorpe concluded. “Let’s go make things happen.”
Gilthorpe remained extremely poised, even while locking eyes with and offering regular bits of string cheese to Noche. The dog, for his part, sat upright like a statue.
“When I felt myself shake a little bit at the end, I looked at Noche and I was like, ‘I’m all good,’ ” Gilthorpe said. “I’m going to imagine an audience full of Noches.”