Focus On Faculty & Staff
Dogs That Work
by Cindy Davis Meixel, writer/photo editor.
"Jesse" (his full name is Jesse James, of Wild West fame) is the service dog of Alfred M. Thomas II, associate professor of collision repair. Following a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and certification through the Veterans Administration, Thomas attained approval to have Jesse with him at work via the Americans with Disabilities Act. The young border collie arrived on the scene last year.
In a place where the restoration of automobiles is the key concentration, other forms of restoration are occurring deeper, below the surface.
Jesse offers his owner the simple joys of companionship, calm and contentment. The devoted dog appears to love his work. He also loves routine. Each morning, when the duo arrives at the College Avenue Labs, Jesse walks the hallway, greeting faculty members in nearby offices (and getting treats from some). He also stands in the hallway, receiving greetings from students passing by on their way to class.
Ryan J. Levesque, '11, business administration: small business and entrepreneurship concentration and a current student in automotive restoration technology, said: "Jesse's calm. You couldn't have (other breeds of dogs) in here; they'd be jumping all over everything. We're just used to him. He's good at remembering faces. He's used to us. If a new person is in the lab, he's curious about them."
"There's a sense of
'I've got your back.'"
Indeed, the dog is vigilant in lab, surveying activities and sensing his owner's needs. Jesse is typically right by Thomas' side or, sometimes, lying across his feet, relieving any perceived anxiety.
"It's very reassuring and calming; there's a sense of 'I've got your back,'" shared Thomas, noting studies that indicate PTSD service dogs lower their owners' blood pressure and help them live longer.
A Vietnam veteran, Thomas' PTSD diagnosis was late in arriving, even though he is an Agent Orange-exposed veteran and annually visits a veterans' clinic. His symptoms were initially spotted by his daughter, Susanna, a 2003 physician assistant graduate of Penn College. After graduation, she began working in federal clinics and soon recognized her father's PTSD symptoms and encouraged him to pursue further testing.
"I knew I was traumatized when I came back from Vietnam, but at the time, it wasn't recognized," said Thomas, who served two tours of duty from 1968 to 1970. "Back then, people weren't socially accepting of a grown man with PTSD. The post-Vietnam society was not open to it like they are now."
Thomas says many sufferers of PTSD are highly successful in their jobs: "They just keep the symptoms down by being workaholics."
The college professor is certainly among that prolific group. A nationally recognized expert in the collision repair arena, Thomas is a contributing editor for Auto Body Repair News; the magazine has published 75 of his articles in the past seven years. He's also a best-selling author, having co-written a leading textbook used in secondary and post-secondary education – "Collision Repair and Refinishing: A Foundation Course for Technicians." Published in 2009 by Delmar Cengage Learning, the popular publication has already been updated with a second edition just this year.
A master certified collision repair refinishing technician and an I-CAR platinum technician, Thomas says he has one of the largest collections of collision repair images and enjoys regularly sharing photos via social media.
"I'll post a photo and someone will ask, 'What kind of paint gun did you use in that picture?' so I'll reply with the information," he explained, noting that he has Twitter and Facebook accounts.
"For a 65-year-old man, I'm one of few older guys who've embraced the technology of social media. I like to keep in touch with my family and also with my students. I like to know what things they're doing, and I like to wish them 'Happy Birthday,'" he noted, adding that he's also accessible to his students via texting and email.
It's his connections with students that he'll miss most when he retires at the end of the 2013-14 academic year.
"When I retire, I can continue to paint cars, but what will be hard to leave is all those nice kids out there," he said, motioning to the lab space outside his office while Jesse rested under the desk.
Yet, retirement plans are aplenty.
Thomas will return to his native Michigan, the state that stirred his interest in the automobile.
"Growing up in Michigan certainly influenced my career," he said, mentioning that he deeply appreciates the social and economic history of the automobile and its role in our country's narrative.
"Falling in love with the automobile came to me naturally," Thomas said. "I understand how they work; I understand how to fix them. I had to have something I'm good at – and it turned out to be cars. Some careers you find; some careers find you. I think this one found me.
"I've been painting cars all my life. I bought my first car at the age of 14. It was a $5 junk car, and six months later, it was ready to run, and I sold it. I've been flipping cars since I was 14."
In retirement, Thomas plans to restore a 2006 Mustang that he bought for his 4-year-old granddaughter. He previously restored a 1966 Mustang (painted the iconic turquoise color) for her mother, Susanna, and figured another Mustang with a "6" in its year was an appropriate follow-up.
He's also looking forward to repairing and painting buggies for his Amish neighbors.
"Yes, the buggies are all black, but they still take a lot of pride in a shiny, clean, well put-together Sunday buggy," he said.
Staying true to his productive inclinations, Thomas is also a farmer. On his homestead in Michigan, he produces a variety of certified organic products including hops, honey and artisan cheeses. For now, his son-in-law tends the farm.
Roaming there, along with Thomas' grandchildren, are Jesse's three siblings who are also being trained as service dogs. Frank James, Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate (yes, more Wild West characters) will most likely go to Gulf War veterans, he says, noting that there's always a waiting list for service dogs.
"It's an emerging therapy," Thomas said of PTSD service dogs, adding, "The people get trained more than the dogs. The dogs pick up things instinctually."
For a time, Thomas considered volunteering in the Peace Corps upon retirement and using his health care skills. Following his service in Vietnam, he worked for nearly three years as a physician assistant in Papua New Guinea and Haiti, but soon opted to return to his earlier love – the automobile.
Still, traveling is on his agenda – with his wife of 40 years, Lynn, a former adjunct English instructor at Penn College, by his side. Among his dream destinations are Wales and England, where this Scotch-Irish lover of Highland games would love to see a sheep dog trial, starring his favorite herders – border collies.
Thomas says having his dog with him at work is "very reassuring and calming." Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Jesse clearly enjoys being part of the "team" in the collision repair lab. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Thomas and a student discuss a project while Jesse watches on. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Sitting at the feet of a visitor, at left, the border collie gazes up at Thomas. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Thomas, at right, discusses academic matters with fellow faculty member Roy H. Klinger, instructor of collision repair, while Jesse stands nearby at a paint booth. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Hanging out in the paint mixing area. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Whether with staff, students or faculty, Jesse is just "one of the gang." Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Thomas reviews a repair project with a student. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
The Penn College collision repair lab. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Repair work, computer details and dog duties. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Jesse is ever watchful. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
From under Thomas' lab coat, the service dog peeks at the camera. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Post-traumatic stress disorder service dogs are an emerging therapy, according to Thomas. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Thomas says border collies make ideal PTSD service dogs. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
It's evident that Jesse is deeply loyal to Thomas … Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
… and that he also enjoys working side-by-side with students. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
The paint mixing area is a busy station in the collision repair lab. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Jesse takes a short breather while Thomas "talks shop" with students. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
Jesse's three siblings are also being trained as service dogs. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
The service dog cape comes complete with amenities likes an easy-pull bag dispenser. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
The border collie is quite focused on the job … Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
… but he also enjoys a quick, noontime rest followed by a longer nap when he gets home from work. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.
When Thomas retires at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, he and Jesse will move home to a Michigan farm. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.