(WARRENSBURG, Mo.) – The black, bear-like dog walks out of the Student Recreation and Wellness Center, turning some heads and attracting a small crowd of students.
Some students keep their distance. Others come right up and ask questions.
“What kind of dog is that?”
“Can I pet it?”
“What’s his name?”
His name is Ronon, and he is a 135-pound Newfoundland who spends his days inside the Walter E. Morrow Building. He also walks campus daily with his owner Ken Bias, physical education teacher, or Lauren Borgerding, senior physical education major.
Borgerding has been watching Ronon since he arrived on campus as a puppy almost two years ago. She said she started working with Ronon by volunteering to watch him in Bias’ office while he was in class and that slowly turned into daily walks and some early training.
“When he was learning to sit and stay I would bring him out into the quad,” Borgerding said. “I’d leave the leash on him but I would have him sit and I would walk a few feet away and then I’d release him to come to me.”
Senior Tessa Delap was one of the six students who recently stopped to pet Ronon.
“I’m by the Rec and saw a big dog laying on the grass and I wanted to come pet it,” Delap said. “I love dogs so it made me happy.”
One of the main reasons Ronon came to campus was to assist some of Bias’ students. He said he wanted a therapy dog, did his research, found a breeder in North Carolina and drove there to pick up Ronon as a puppy prior to the spring semester of 2015.
Ronon is a certified therapy dog, water rescue dog and is also working toward a certification in carting. Carting is where the dog is trained to pull a cart behind them.
Bias teaches the adaptive PE class at UCM and many of his students are also in the THRIVE program on campus. The THRIVE program provides students with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to receive a college experience.
“I saw that there were always those students who were having adjustment issues, emotional issues, just different things like that,” Bias said. “So, I thought what a great thing to introduce to them – a therapy dog that they could come interact with when they needed it.”
Bias said that as far as therapy dogs go, you can’t beat the temperament of a Newfoundland.
“They just love people. They are not aggressive dogs,” Bias said. “They are just big lovable lumps on the floor most of the time.”
Since Ronon is only 2, Bias said he still has about 40 pounds to gain. By the time he is 4 he should be fully grown at about 170 pounds.
Bias demonstrates how much room Ronon still has to grow by pulling up the slack in his fur and skin, which falls back down after being released.
Borgerding said even when people are in a hurry, they make time to stop and spend a moment with Ronon.
“I think the most I’ve ever had is 20 people stop me on a walk just to pet him,” Borgerding said. “He was all for it. Actually when he was younger he would get upset if nobody stopped to pet him. He would pout.”
Bias said Ronon seems to know his purpose on campus. He said that with the THRIVE students, Ronon can sense stress and is always there as a support for them.
“If you’re having a bad day, he’ll go sit by students,” Bias said. “He more feeds off of their emotions to see what he can do to help them.”
While Ronon is a help to the students, he also gets some benefit.
“He loves the attention. He loves it. If people see him on campus and they want to come pet him, all you gotta do is come up and ask,” Borgerding said. “For a while he was more persuaded toward females. There was one time where a group of 50 female nursing students were walking on campus and he decided to walk through the middle of them.”
While he does therapy work on UCM’s campus, Ronon also provides his services at the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Kansas City.
Bias said the therapy work involves specific levels of obedience training.
“They have to go through a series of tests where they’re put into situations that are loud and distracting to see how they react,” Bias said. “They’ll make them interact with people in walkers, people in wheelchairs to make sure they’re OK with that.”
Bias said water rescue is one of a Newfoundland dog’s favorite things to do.
“We got with the local Newfoundland Club and every Saturday and Sunday all summer long we’d go out to this place by Lake Jacomo and do water training,” Bias said.
Their summer training involved making sure Ronon would only rescue the person yelling for help in the water.
“Newfies don’t like people in water so they want to get everyone out of the water, and it took awhile for him to realize if there’s three people in the water, he only goes after the one yelling for help,” Bias said.
Bias said Ronon has many human characteristics. He said his feelings get hurt when Bias has to use a stern tone with him and he’ll pout. And if people pass by without petting him, Ronon is visibly affected. His big brown eyes follow that individual and he looks a little deflated.
“A lot of people judge him because he’s big but he is so soft-hearted,” Bias said. “I think Ronon would have the attitude of race, gender… it doesn’t matter. All people are people, he loves all people equally.”
Students can see Ronon in action during the upcoming homecoming parade, Bias said. He will be pulling a cart alongside other Newfoundlands with The Heart of America Newfoundland Club on Saturday, Oct. 14.