Alaskan Therapy Dog Team Brings Peace and Joy to Those Dealing With High-Stress Events

Daily Point of Light # 7694 Nov 29, 2023

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Miranda Miller. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Miranda Miller met Arya, a 10-week-old Brittany puppy, in 2019 when she was dropped off at Miranda’s in-home dog boarding business, Bird Dog Bed and Breakfast. Her parents later realized they weren’t prepared for a puppy and were planning to return her.

“She’d bonded with me at that point, and I couldn’t imagine her just going back to a breeder and not knowing what happened to her. So, I offered to adopt her and they said yes,” Miranda recalls.

Miranda knew a purebred Brittany like Arya was expensive and offered to pay, but her family refused adding that she had a lot of potential. It was that moment Miranda decided she and Arya would become a therapy dog team.

In addition to the B&B, Miranda is a remote medical coding auditor for a rural Alaskan hospital. She is married with a 3-year-old son and has since adopted a second therapy dog, a Brittany named Mazy Bear.

(left to right) Arya Bear, Miranda and Mazy Bear pose in front of AK Bark, a local dog boutique that included Arya in their outdoor mural.

Together, Miranda and her dogs visit many places around Anchorage. They’ve been regulars at the Covenant House’s Rights of Passage program, a transitional living program where young adults who have experienced homelessness can get support but are in between a shelter and independent living. The kids–sometimes working through trauma, mental health issues or substance use—see them as family and will often rearrange their work schedule to be there for visits. As an Alaskan Native, Yu’pik and Inupiaq, Miranda brings understanding to the program made up largely of those of similar cultural background.

At least twice a week, Miranda and one of her pups will head to the Alaska Native Medical Center as well. After entering the Emergency Department, the pair makes their way through every unit on five floors.

“Sometimes, Arya just walks up to a person that doesn’t look like they want a visit. She knows when a person really needs that,” Miranda stated.

They spend time with patients experiencing high anxiety because of lack of clarity about their ailment or upcoming procedures with risk involved. The stress of upset patients, machines beeping and time pressure leaves medical staff in a position to benefit from some dog time, too.

“Her dogs are such a blessing when they come. When she enters a nursing unit, you can physically see the change in the energy. It just changes their attitude,” said Roberta Miljure, volunteer coordinator at the hospital.

The pandemic took a toll on volunteering as much as everything else. A couple of dogs passed away during the time away. Some were hesitant to go through reapplication after things opened up again. Many moved to the National Crisis Response program.

“Pre-COVID, I had six [therapy dog teams]. Right now, I only have Miranda, so I depend on her quite heavily,” Roberta added. “She’s wonderful
about even visiting on call if we have a particular situation or a certain patient who would benefit from it.”

In fact, Miranda and her dogs are a third of the way through the year-long training for Crisis Response but have no plans of leaving their current volunteer circuit behind. Teams in this organization can be deployed all over the country when a tragedy like a natural disaster hits to keep people calm and help where they can. Training is mainly for the handler and involves classes like First Aid, psychological First Aid, suicide awareness and more. Dogs get more obedience and socialization.

“They have to really be in tune with really high emotions, chaos and different environments they don’t go to often,” Miranda said.
While in training, Miranda joins Crisis Response at school visits around town. Arya particularly loves these visits because she loves children. Miranda also looks forward to visiting more police departments and fire stations going forward.

Miranda and Arya Bear, dressed to impress, get ready to visit patients at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

In the meantime, Mazy, Arya and Miranda stop in the local military hospital and their related events as well as assisted living homes as part of the Alaska Red Cross therapy dog team. And Miranda is one of two volunteers in Alaska who helps out with American Brittany Rescues (ABR). She fosters dogs from the shelter and acts as the co-chair of the outreach team that spreads awareness about ABR’s services
“She’s just an incredible person and an incredible mother, and I wish I could clone her. She’s a very sweet, compassionate person,” Roberta effused.

In April, Miranda started Arya Bear’s Closet. Failing to find a dog kuspuk, an indigenous Alaskan garment popular among humans, Miranda created her own lightweight, bandana versions for the pups to wear volunteering.

“People really started looking forward to seeing what they were going to wear and asked for one for themselves,” she smiled. “I just kept getting requests, so I decided to open up a little business, and it took off immediately.”

With the unexpected success, Miranda has incorporated giving back as part of her business’ mission and has donated over $2,000 in funding and gear to various local nonprofits. Currently, this dedicated dog-lover is working on starting the Rural Alaska Therapy Dog program in Bethel, the small town where she grew up.

“There’s no road system there. You can only fly there or take a boat. Bethel is where the airplanes are. And then everyone else boats in the summer or drives on the river in the winter. The river becomes the highway that connects little villages to the big hubs,” Miranda remarked.

Bethel hosts the largest hospital in the western part of the state, and it’s often busy. Miranda is in talks with the hospital president and the Bethel Dog Rescue and hopes to kick things off at the end of the year or early 2024. She believes the program would not only benefit patients and staff but the community at large.

“The culture there…people just have loose dogs. They don’t really understand training, and if they see a dog working, it really could change their mindset on how the dog should be taken care of overall by training them to be a therapy dog. And would result in fewer strays,” she predicted.

She also hopes it would lead to more adoptions from overpopulated rescue centers. Most people in the area have never seen the effects of a therapy dog and have been enthusiastic about her hospital visits in the past.

Due to Miranda’s husband’s job at the fire department shop, Arya Bear (left) and Mazy Bear are familiar faces at the fire department and were invited to be part of the Fourth of July parade.

Today, Arya has become a bit of a local celebrity, a fixture in the Anchorage landscape, and people often stop to say hello.

“Before this, I was really shy. I wasn’t a public person. Arya has gotten me out of my shell,” Miranda reflected.

On days she’d rather sleep in, Arya motivates her to get out of bed. After all, she emphasizes how small things you do for people can go a long way.

“It really just sets the standard for the community, and having your friends and family watch you do something you enjoy makes them want to do the same. The act of giving spreads really fast,” she stated.

Miranda and her kuspec-clad Brittanys’ work brings light to everyone they see, even outside their planned stops. Their dedication and kindness ties the community they love together, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Miranda? Find local volunteer opportunities.


Kristin Park