A River runs through MSU campus
As Michigan State University students and faculty navigate a rush of emotions one year after the mass shooting on campus, MSU Police Lt. Kim Parviainen hopes that one four-legged member of the department can offer individuals on campus some comfort, or at least a layer of dog hair.
River, 2, joined the MSU Police Department as a comfort dog in the months following the Feb. 13, 2023, shooting when requests for comfort animals at events and gatherings were coming in force. He works with Parviainen in community engagement.
“He loves work. … He runs to the door when he knows it’s time to go to work,” Parviainen said. “He actually gets sad on days like Saturday. He’ll go and sniff my bag like, ‘Are we going to go to work today?’”
In addition to the enthusiastic golden retriever’s two major passions — befriending the MSU squirrels and ensuring every stick on campus is located and accounted for — River attends events and trainings on campus, accepting pets and hugs from students across the more than 5,000-acre campus. His adventures can be followed @msupolicetherapydogs on Instagram.
“River can’t bring anyone back … But he’s a small bright spot for our students and faculty and staff and families, hopefully … in what has been a dark time on campus,” Parviainen said.
Making sure students feel safe in class and that professors and staff can go to work and enjoy campus is something Parviainen said she’s always taken pride in as a “guardian of the Spartan community.”
“I’ve been here for 14 years; I went to school here and I’m from the area. So even in grade school, in high school, this was a place that I would come out to with my family and my friends, and go to sporting events,” Parviainen said. “That’s a lot of what drove me to work here and not somewhere else. … This is my community. This is where I’ve spent a lot of my life.”
And when Parviainen was deciding what she wanted the university’s comfort dog program to look like, she thought of what she loved most about campus.
“That’s why I named him River. The Red Cedar River is through the heart of our campus. … I have done so many runs on campus when it’s beautiful weather and just running along the banks and seeing people sitting or reading. It’s just so beautiful and it’s just such a comforting place,” Parviainen said.
If a person finds any comfort in dogs, even if they spend just a quick moment with River to pet him while he’s walking through a building, he can make what will be a stressful day for the MSU community just a little less scary or tense.
Like many workers, River puts in a regular 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift during the week at MSU. But on Tuesday, River will be spending the morning at Berkey Hall and the MSU Union where the shootings took place a year ago. MSU will not be holding classes on Tuesday, but there are events all week to offer support to those who have been impacted by the shooting and to remember the lives of the three students who were killed: Alexandria Verner, 20; Brian Fraser, 20; and Arielle Anderson, 19.
The MSU community came together immediately after the tragedy to look out for each other and help where they could, Parviainen said, recalling one woman standing in a university parking lot with bags of treats, just hoping she’d see an officer to give them to.
“As law enforcement, typically we’re going to see someone on their worst day. People call us when things are going badly or there’s a serious situation or an emergency … It usually isn’t the other way around,” Parviainen said. “After Feb. 13, we had an outpouring of support and love from the community unlike anything I’ve ever seen or experienced. Every single day there were pizzas or bagels or cases of Red Bull or therapy dogs; it was endless.”
There were so many food deliveries from families and businesses, the department had to use a refrigeration truck to store all the food so it could be distributed to the department and volunteers who worked around the clock in the days following Feb. 13.
“It still makes me emotional to remember that time, to feel so supported by the community when in the last couple of years and things that have been going around the country, I didn’t feel like that,” Parviainen said. “And River is just another thing to give back to people. I love having him and I love taking him home as a dog, but really he is a tool for this department, for our people and for our campus community to bring them comfort and happiness and dog hair.”
Comfort dog wasn’t River’s first career aspiration, although helping people has always been his goal.
River is a “career change” dog from Paws with a Cause, a Michigan-based nonprofit that breeds and trains service animals to help those living with disabilities gain more independence and have a greater quality of life.
PAWS Communications Manager Sidney Baxter explained that dogs like River have wonderful demeanors towards people and are very intelligent. But for any number of reasons, they just can’t fulfill the role of a service animal.
“It can be for so many reasons. It could be the fact that their hips aren’t strong enough so they’ll never be able to be a service dog for mobility because they won’t be able to brace for someone. But that wouldn’t affect their ability to read with a child, so they can go to the facility dog career,” Baxter said. “They’re pretty motivated to work and they enjoy doing it, so it’s very fulfilling for all these dogs. And it’s pretty cool that we get to do that.”
A career change can happen to the best of dogs, like Wyleigh, a canine advocate down the road at the United Resiliency Center who offers comfort to both the MSU community and Oxford, where the Southeast Michigan city is still dealing with the impact of the 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School.
Both dogs share a passion for helping people. Folks over at the United Resiliency Center affectionately call River Wyleigh’s “boyfriend,” as the two enjoy spending time with one another.
Career change dogs can be reassigned to any number of facilities, but PAWS has seen the most interest from hospitals and schools. Baxter said PAWS trains dogs to be able to sit gently with children as they read to them, as well as training them to allow nurses to perform faux medical procedures on them, like injections, in order to make patients more comfortable with procedures.
PAWS dogs complete one year of training for basic commands. Then they spend some time training in a program where individuals serving prison sentences have the opportunity to rehabilitate with the dogs, giving the dogs the opportunity to work on more specialized skills.
The goal is to make sure the dogs have the opportunity to work and thrive either as service animals or comfort animals, Baxter said.
PAWS placed its first facility dog in 2017. The goal for 2024 is to place 130 dogs, with about one-third of those being facility dogs.
“We’re definitely very proud of River getting placed at MSU. That was a big thing; we love the Spartan community. We love seeing dogs go to colleges,” Baxter said.
River was an obvious choice for MSU, PAWS Purposeful Placements Coordinator Kelly Wass said.
“River has a fun, energetic, goofy personality and loves to be around people. … When I introduced Kim [Parviainen] and River the first time, I believe it was love at first sight; the two of them connected instantly,” Wass said.
Parviainen laughed when she recalled what River was like as a puppy.
“He was crazy; he came out of his little dog run and he came out of there like a barrel and just was running,” Parviainen said. “He was just so happy and so sweet he [stuck] his head underneath my hair and I was like, ‘Well, clearly we have the same hair color. He’s my son.’”
Parviainen said she knew what River could accomplish on campus having worked previously with another canine named Bane, who died in winter 2022 after seven years of service.
Bane was a patrol dog, but would also work with Parviainen with her community engagement responsibilities. Anytime an organizer wanted to have a police dog come in, Bane was the dog for the job, she said, as he could run around with kids and play or sit calmly, depending on what was needed.
“Some of my most memorable days were when I would go to an event and bring Bane and have someone come up to me and have a conversation. And at the end of that conversation, they’d say, ‘I’ve never had a good interaction with a police officer until today,’” Parviainen said. “Those were the days that really, truly brought tears to my eyes and they only came up to me because they were interested in the dog.”
So when Parviainen was on her way to attend MSU’s annual student memorial service this past summer, she felt overwhelmed at the prospect of the university honoring all the students who had died in the last year. And she said she got a “sign from God.”
A friend of hers who was on the PAWS board of directors asked if MSUPD would be interested in seeing if a facility dog could be a good fit. Parviainen knew it was time to act on weeks of interest from the department in getting a comfort dog.
The goal for River is to be a resource around campus, as well as a help within the department so first responders maintain wellness. Part of his responsibilities include being able to sit during witness interviews and help people confidently seek help from law enforcement when they need it.
And that’s part of the hope for Tuesday, Parviainen said. If someone is returning to Berkey Hall or the MSU Union remembering the tragedy, River might be able to help support them in healing.
“I feel more ready for Feb. 13 this year because we have him,” Parviainen said. “We’re just going to be available for whoever might need to pet him. … I hope he could just give a smile to a couple of people.”