Therapy dog provides stress relief, joy to Mercer Law students and beyond

A man sits atop a motorcycle with a dog in the attached side car
Harold Heck, bar exam and academic success specialist, and his therapy dog, Rose. Photo by Maggie Reimer

Meet Rose, a 2-year-old, 120-pound bullmastiff, certified therapy dog and regular visitor at Mercer Law School. Students, faculty and staff have grown to expect weekly visits from Rose and additional visits at especially stressful times such as exam week or during competitions.

Rose greets her visitors with an air of calmness and confidence that suggest a deep understanding of human emotion and need. With sad eyes and squishy wrinkles, her face, on a head comparable in size to that of a small adult woman, gives nothing away, but her slow swinging tail tells the story. This gentle giant loves people.

Dubbed the “gamekeeper’s night dog,” bullmastiffs were bred to be big, swift and brave enough to pursue and pin a man prowling the grounds in the dead of night. A breeding of mastiffs and bulldogs, the modern day bullmastiff is a dependable and warm family companion given to an affectionate nature that makes them great therapy dogs when trained properly.

Harold Heck, bar exam and academic success specialist at Mercer Law, got Rose when she was 2 months old.

“I have always had an affection for bully breeds and over the last 30 years have had bulldogs, boxers, and Boston terriers. I had seen bullmastiffs at a dog show years before and loved them, but I knew that due to their size, training would be essential from the start,” he said. “Rose was meant to just be a pet, and I had never seriously trained a dog before, but working from home during the pandemic gave me the time I needed with a new puppy during those crucial first few months of life.”

Rose and Heck are a therapy dog team. Therapy dogs go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Heck has done all of Rose’s training himself, beginning the day he brought her home from the breeder. They still train every day, whether it is reinforcing the basics or learning something new.

Seated dog holds out a paw to a student
Rose greets students at a Mercer Law therapy dog event in the library. Photo by Maggie Reimer

Rose provides stress relief and joy to the people she meets.

Second-year law student Jasmine Smith said Rose and Heck are “very special and always show up at the right time.”

Other students agree that spending a little time with Rose makes their day better.

Second-year law student Chloe Bonds said it’s a treat and a privilege to see Rose on campus.

Researchers have shown that just a few minutes of interaction with a dog or cat can significantly reduce a person’s stress hormones.

“We completed our certification as a therapy dog team in July of 2022. Rose’s first visit was the bar exam in Dallas (where we were living) the same month,” Heck said. “I saw how much of a calming effect she had on students and staff during those two days and knew that having her as a regular presence at the Law School would provide a great deal of stress relief.”

Maintaining almost constant eye contact with Heck, Rose waits for his command, words of praise or a treat from the snack sack on his belt.

The team goes wherever they are invited, regularly volunteering at a juvenile prison, a hospice center and nursing homes. Additionally, they have visited police stations, middles schools, hospitals and a summer camp for disadvantaged youth.

Heck and another therapy dog owner started a program with the Georgia Department of Corrections called “Thera-Paws.” They make weekly visits with the juveniles in the Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth. The program provides young people with the opportunity to spend an hour with the dogs, and the team often puts on demonstrations. Currently, the children are helping teach Rose new tricks, and she is halfway to earning her next trick dog title.

On sunny days, an intensely focused Rose cruises onto campus in her very cool sidecar that is attached to Heck’s motorcycle, a Ural Gear Up. The sidecar was not designed for dogs, so Heck removed the bottom portion of the seat and added padding to the floor for Rose. She wears a harness and a has a double-sided leash that straps to her back and chest.

“Drivers are always just amazed and thrilled when they see us traveling. We get a lot of staring, thumbs up and honking if we are moving and a lot of pictures if we are stopped at an intersection.”

A dog sits in a sidecar of a motorcycle
Rose enjoys rides in the motorcycle. Photo by Maggie Reimer

Heck came to Macon in July of 2011 to attend Mercer Law, graduating in 2014. He says that after a fair amount of research, he found the law school was well matched to what he was looking for: a strong reputation for producing practice-ready attorneys, a great legal writing program, students that were supportive and welcoming, and a solid bar passage rate. He had been working in academic success and bar prep for six years when the position at Mercer opened. He started working at the law school in August of 2022.

Today, he teaches legal process to first-year law students, which focuses on learning legal analysis, and bar preparation to third-year students. He also teaches a variety of workshops. Heck earned his MBA from Boise State University and his bachelor’s degree from Washington State University. His wife, Casey Heck, works at Mercer School of Medicine as a pre-clinical academic associate. They also have a 10-year-old Boston terrier named Frank. Despite the 85-pound weight difference, Rose and Frank love playing together. You can follow Rose on social media at @therapydogrose.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2023 edition of the Mercer Lawyer magazine.


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