by Len Lear
Michaela Greif, 35, is a licensed social worker and mental health professional with a Masters degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, but unlike her fellow graduates, Michaela now works exclusively with clients who have four legs, not two.
Michaela, who lived in Los Angeles and Minneapolis before moving to Philadelphia with her husband in 2005, was a dog trainer before she became a social worker, having spent one year in California training service dogs, so it was a natural progression for her to combine her passion for canines with her passion for helping people in serious trouble. (Michaela and her husband, Dan, now live locally with Einstein, a 9-year-old mutt and retired therapy dog, and Birdie, a 3-year-old mutt and “professional couch potato.”)
She spent nearly 10 years volunteering extensively with animal shelters and rescue groups in New York City, Philadelphia and Sonoma County, California. She and Dan have hosted and re-homed many foster dogs and kittens. Over the years she has also been involved with programs for homeless youth, children in foster care and juvenile detention centers, even Holmesburg Prison. She has taken dogs into these facilities and supervised the residents while they helped train the dogs to work with disabled individuals — quadriplegics, paraplegics, people with mobility impairment and emotional problems, brain injured and stroke victims, etc.
The programs not only help the handicapped individuals but also the prisoners and others who help train the dogs, giving them a sense of purpose, learning a valuable skill and developing powerful emotional ties (for the dogs) that were largely repressed and seen as weaknesses when applied to other human beings. Michaela was also contracted for one year to develop a program called “New Leash on Life,” providing service dogs for military veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It’s very empowering to take care of an animal,” Greif said in an earlier interview, “and to take care of an animal well, and often for folks who are battling a disability, they don’t have a lot of empowerment in their life. I think it feels really good to take care of something and to have it take care of you.”
Not too many years ago, the only service dogs most people were familiar with were those aiding the blind, but Greif says those days are long gone. Medical service providers have learned that certain dogs can be trained to assist people with a wide range of disabilities, both physical and emotional. It has even been established in extensive studies that certain dogs can detect some types of cancer that previously went undiagnosed.
And the relationship that develops between the service dog and the human can be as profound and rewarding as any relationship on earth. According to Michaela, “They end up like a couple. That’s what they are. And they end up tailoring a whole new vocabulary for themselves, and they become very intuitive, the dog to the person but also the person to the dog.”
Greif was a trainer for a program called “Hand-in-Paw” that brought homeless kids into an animal shelter to work with the dogs. She also led free pit bull training classes for the Humane Society of the U.S.’ “End Dogfighting Campaign” at the Pennsylvania SPCA.
In 2012 Greif switched full-time to working with pets. She now works for Opportunity Barks Behavior & Training at 3500 Scotts Lane in East Falls, which does the more traditional type of training of everyday pets. Opportunity Barks also has outlets in South Philadelphia and Quakertown, but their training is done in East Falls. Michaela is one of two full-time trainers, and there are two part-time trainers as well.
“Michaela is absolutely wonderful with both people and dogs,” said Leigh Siegfried, owner of the business who graduated from Penn State and did some work as a copywriter but then left the corporate world for a life where she could hang out with dogs all the time. She started out in the Washington, D.C., area working at animal shelters, dog daycares and training centers.
Does Greif prefer working with two-legged or four-legged clients? “They are actually closely related,” replied Michaela. “After all, when I work with the dogs, I am also working with the dog owners. In fact, my background as a therapist is very helpful in dog training. Whether you are working with animals or people, it is still all about relationships. That is what therapy is. So the principles are really not so different.”
For more information about Opportunity Barks, call 888-672-2757, or visit www.opbarks.com.