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Therapy dog, campus ambassador, very good boy: Cooper as you’ve never seen him

Awake by 4 a.m. Starbucks at the Curry Center. Pilates at Marino. Play time on the East Stetson quad. A long nap. And lots of serious work in-between. Spend a busy day on the Boston campus with everyone’s favorite golden retriever.

Cooper laying in the grass with a red ball looking into the camera lens
Cooper plays in the grass on Northeastern’s Centennial Common. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

In some ways, Cooper, the 2-year-old cream-colored golden retriever and community resource dog, is a lot like his human counterparts on Northeastern University’s Boston campus. He has his own Husky Card, printed at Speare Hall. He’s a “lifelong learner,” with a busy extracurricular schedule of obedience and rescue dog certification classes on the weekends. He is active on Instagram. And he starts this busy Wednesday at the Curry Center Starbucks.

It’s the last week of classes, and also Mental Health Awareness week, which means Cooper has a full itinerary ahead. On the way into Curry, he and his handler, Northeastern University Police Department Officer Rachel Jolliffe, say a passing hello to Bri Boggs, a graduate student working a shift at a campus information booth.

“You coming to Pilates, Cooper?” Boggs calls out.

He is. But that’s later. The first stop is for a “pup cup”—a small bowl of whipped cream—which the baristas know to whip up when they see him coming. At first, Cooper, patient yet visibly drooling, and Jolliffe take their spot in line. But celebrity has its perks; they’re quickly called to the front, where the dog laps up his favorite treat to an appreciative audience. “Oh, he deserves it,” gushes a student.

“He’s a hard worker,” agrees another.

It’s 10 a.m., but Cooper has been up for several hours already. He lives full-time with Jolliffe on Massachusetts’ north shore, and perhaps her only gripe about the serene, impeccably behaved dog—as a housemate or otherwise—is that he wakes up between 3:45 and 4 a.m. It’s a holdover, she says, from the schedule he kept with his first handler, the early-rising, now-retired NUPD officer Joe Mathews. Breakfast is a portion of TLC, a high-quality dog food only sold online. Meals are small because Cooper gets a lot of treats throughout the day, both from Jolliffe and passersby on campus. He does 15 minutes of basic obedience training every morning before hopping into the car and heading to Boston.

Quad on East Stetson

After Starbucks, the pair heads to the quad on East Stetson, where Cooper and a dozen other golden retrievers of various ages lounge around waiting to be petted, part of a stress-relief event put on by members of Northeastern’s Greek community. The puppies (Buddy, Lucy, Skipper and Dusty, to name a few) are from Golden Opportunities for Independence (GOFI), an organization in Walpole, Massachusetts, that breeds and trains golden retrievers for a variety of service jobs around New England. Many, like Cooper, are community resource dogs for town police forces; he has cousins on duty in nearby Needham (Officer Rocket) and Dedham (Ruby). Unlike the “Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working,” warnings worn by many K9s and seeing eye dogs, GOFI dogs often have harnesses that say “Pet Me.”

A small crowd of admirers forms the moment Cooper settles down on the grass, taking pictures and offering belly rubs.

“This is my good luck charm,” says Josh Barde, a business school graduate student on his way to an accounting exam. Jolliffe passes out cards printed with Cooper’s photo and contact information; she prints different sets of them periodically.

“Forget Pokémon; I’m starting a collection of these,” quips Sabrina Brochus, a first-year student whose family in Vermont has a golden retriever. “It’s nice to have a piece of home here; it boosts your mood a little,” she says.

Job takes on a variety of dimensions

Fundamentally, boosting the mood is Cooper’s job at Northeastern. But that occupation takes on a variety of dimensions—some fun and lightweight, like most of today, and others quite serious. The Cooper “trading cards” are delightful bits of swag, but they’re also a means by which the Northeastern community can call upon him for support in crisis situations. He’s been brought in to sit with trauma victims during police interviews, as comfort for the grieving in the wake of on-campus suicides or simply as a friendly presence for those going through a hard time. A big part of his schedule is half-hour, one-on-one sessions (which anyone can email Jolliffe to request) doing just that.

“He really tunes into how [people are] feeling when they come into the office for visits,” Jolliffe says. “If they’re crying, he’ll drape himself over their lap. I’ve watched kids, like, tears falling into his fur, and they’re smiling and laughing by the time they leave.”

Casey Brown petting Cooper
Casey Brown, an administrative specialist at Northeastern, trained with Cooper as a volunteer for Golden Opportunities for Independence in Walpole. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Cooper’s Northeastern ties run deeper than the fact that he is, in fact, owned by the university. He originally went by “Frosty,” and one of his first trainers was Sara Scardocci, a fourth-year engineering student who has volunteered with GOFI since high school. “My freshman year of college, I got a call while I was sitting in the student center saying, ‘Hey, your school wants a dog; do you want to help train him?’ And I said, ‘absolutely, I would love that.’”

As a puppy awaiting his permanent assignment, Cooper also lived for a time with Casey Brown, a GOFI volunteer and administrator for Northeastern University’s honors program. When they’re young, GOFI dogs often live with a few different volunteers, to get them accustomed to a variety of environments. “He was never one of those dogs that zoomed around a lot,” Brown says. “And he’s very loving. When he sees me, he gives me a hug. So he’s kind of the perfect dog to work on a campus.”

He was tapped for community resource work at a young age. “At 7 weeks, we do what’s called a temperament test,” says Dan Gruber, GOFI’s assistant training manager. “That is a sort of stress test on the puppies to see what they can endure. We practice lifting them up and holding them off the ground, seeing, are they stressed [by] not being in control? Do they follow us around? Are they interested in people? Objects? When they’re playing with us, are they a little bit aggressive?” (He acknowledges that this is a relative term for golden retrievers, who are notoriously gentle.) “Are they playing lightly?”

The puppies are then set on specialized training tracks to become either individual service dogs, facilities dogs (who work in one setting, like a school or office), or, like Cooper, community dogs that can handle a variety of situations. “We look for dogs that can have a calmer presence, but, very smart—they can work,” Gruber says. “In Cooper’s case, he has a great nose. So that also factored into him doing some search and rescue training.”

Still, like any puppy, he didn’t come fully ready for the job. “One of his first outings was with my dog, Grizz, and he pooped in a Kohl’s,” Scardocci recalls. “He’s a nervous pooper.”

Cooper licking Rachel Joliffe's face
Cooper gives his owner NUPD Officer Rachel Joliffe a kiss. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Statues around campus terrified him

Another challenge: When Cooper first started visiting Northeastern, the statues around campus terrified him. His various companions spent a lot of time luring him with treats to the Cy Young statue tucked away in the middle of campus.

Such work pays off. After bidding goodbye to his GOFI friends, Cooper passes the Shillman cat statue without incident as he walks down the road to the Wentworth Institute of Technology, where campus police are handing out free slushies. A black Labrador named Barklee, the campus dog for the Berklee College of Music, is there to greet him.  It’s a warm day, and Cooper, while friendly to everyone he meets, is clearly tired from the sheer amount of walking. He flops down on the brick walkway while bubbles float by and an Ariana Grande song blares on a nearby speaker. It’s about 1 p.m., and Jolliffe decides to postpone his next engagement, greeting students at the Snell Library, so he can go back to the police station on Columbus Avenue and take an extra-long nap.

At the station, Cooper forgoes both the dog bed and crate at his disposal in Jolliffe’s office and settles in for a snooze on the floor. His favorite toy, a large stuffed bunny with missing ears, sits nearby.

For Jolliffe, managing Cooper’s workload is a chief priority, especially as he gets called in for bigger and bigger events. He recently earned an Urban Canine Good Citizen certification. This year, he attended Boston Marathon festivities for the first time, part of a group of 100 golden retrievers that gathered to pay tribute to Spencer and Penney, two recently-passed goldens who were fixtures on the race route. On May 7, he went to Northeastern’s commencement at Fenway Park for the first time, where, like many other university staffers, he worked a 12-hour day, greeting people at the entrance and working the stands. Jolliffe made him a mortarboard hat for the occasion. He also visits patients at Boston Children’s Hospital once a month.

Cooper’s services are so highly-sought that last year, Northeastern brought another community dog, a black lab named Sarge, on board. “I would love to be able to offer his service to more local establishments,” Jolliffe says, like senior centers and more hospitals. “He’s pretty busy with our own community, and they’ll always come first. But with the extra time, I would love to expand the outreach with our residents and businesses around here.”

Still, he’s a dog, and she makes sure he gets three to four hours a day to himself—to play with Sarge and some of the dogs he knows around campus, and to run around the yard. He gets plenty of sleep, too, sacking out on the commute home and turning in around 7:45 p.m., after a last 15-minute round of obedience training.

Cooper's Massachusetts pet license
Cooper has his own license. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University.

Downtime ensures he’s refreshed

That downtime ensures he’s refreshed mentally and physically for his campus duties, which, on this day, conclude with a 4 p.m. Pilates class at the Marino Center. Boggs, the graduate student he and Jolliffe greeted in the morning, has taught a handful of classes with Cooper sitting in. “Cooper will be joining us in class today, so if anyone is uncomfortable with dogs, please let me know,” Boggs advises the class. No one does.

Cooper doesn’t actually participate in the exercises; even the most talented dogs have limits. Instead, as the students hold plank poses and huff through “The 100,” an intense core exercise, Jolliffe scatters kibble on the students’ mats for the dog to walk around and find — his dinner for the evening. After visiting participants, who are smiling on their mats, he lies supine on the hardwood floor.  

“Cooper is relaxed in his neutral spine position,” Boggs intones.

Schuyler Velasco is a Northeastern Global News Magazine reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @Schuyler_V.