Mariesa Jozwiak is one of the founders of Upstate Underdog Rescue and has volunteered her time at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society since around 2010. Upstate Underdog takes on hard-to-place dogs from shelters and works to find them homes. She currently has four long-term fosters. She is also an elementary school teacher in Bethlehem. She lives in Troy with her dogs and one very understanding tortoise.
Q: Your group’s motto is ‘Every Dog has a Superpower.’ Where did that come from and why do you believe it?
A: The dog who most inspired my early participation in UUR was a boy I named Mudge. Mudge had issues with people but he was extraordinarily good with other dogs. We said that dogs were his “superpower.” When we started to think about creating a place for dogs like Mudge who needed small worlds with understanding humans, it was a natural extension to think about nurturing the superpower inherent in every dog. The motto sprang from that thinking. Every Dog has a Superpower is a powerful message because it shifts from the deficit labeling that our dogs so often have (not good with other dogs, doesn’t like strangers, won’t share his toys,) to a more positive outlook (terrific snuggler, wonderful kisser, bringer of great joy.) While this switch in labeling certainly doesn’t eliminate the challenges the dog has, words matter. When you start with a focus on what’s good, everyone feels more optimistic and dealing with the challenges is a tiny bit easier.
Q: What is the goal of Upstate Underdog and what is your favorite part of working with dogs?
UUR’s goal is to get local dogs into loving, smart, prepared homes. There are a lot of great parts of rescue, but my favorite is seeing a dog who was overly stressed at the shelter relax on the couch. When that happens, I know he has found at least one place where he can be calm. We can build on that to expand his world at his pace.
Q: You are into ‘scent work,’ or allowing dogs to use their nose to work their brain. What are the benefits and how much success have you had using the technique?
A: There are so many benefits to ScentWork, but I’ll focus on two: encouraging a dog to tap into her primary sense (sense of smell) and the focus on dog-directed choice. Dogs have millions more olfactory receptors than humans and they use a lot of their brains to figure out what those smells mean. When looking for enrichment opportunities for dogs, it just makes sense to build on their already amazing sense of smell. The importance of choice also can’t be overlooked. It is the foundation of ScentWork — it is totally up to the dog what she does in the ring. If she just wants to sniff the corners of the room or roll around on the floor or look out the window for a bit, that’s fine. Dogs in shelters generally have very limited opportunities to make their own choices but participating in ScentWork gives them a chance to push themselves to think, problem solve, and (ultimately) work with a human partner to achieve a goal — all while using their Superpowered sense of smell! What’s not to love about that if you’re a dog? There is also recent scholarly research by Drs. Charlotte Duranton and Alexandra Horowitz showing that dogs who participate in ScentWork are more optimistic and resilient. Since many of the dogs we work with have had challenging pasts, anything we can do to help them become more optimistic and resilient is worth it as these qualities lead to happier dogs. As far as success goes, I’ve never worked with a dog who wasn’t successful with ScentWork. Does that mean that every dog has become a titled ScentWork dog or a working Scent Detection Dog? No … although that has happened. What we usually see are scared dogs who realize through ScentWork that they have some control over their world or jumpy-mouthy dogs who realize that it actually pays to be calm and focused. The greatest success is seeing these skills transferred outside the Scent ring and into the real world.
Q: Describe the most difficult dog you have ever dealt with and what did you do?
A: I always say that the most difficult dog I ever worked with was the first dog I ever adopted from Mohawk Hudson. Her name was Ellie Mae and she was a bloodhound with a lot of chronic medical issues that extended into behavioral issues. And what I did was make a lot of mistakes. Just like everything else in life, dog guardianship is a journey. Ellie Mae came into my life long before I got into volunteering at the shelter or working with rescue. My dog support network was pretty much nonexistent. But, like Maya Angelou said, “You do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, you do better.” Ellie Mae died before I got a chance to do better for her, but I like to think that every dog I work with now benefits from the lessons she taught me about living with a dog who has challenges.
Q: How do you think teachers and children dealt with (or are dealing) with COVID and how do you think it will change education if at all?
I don’t think I can fully answer that question yet. Although we have a solid year and a half of Covid teaching behind us, things are still very uncertain. I will say that I taught in person all last year and I was amazed at how well things went. Teachers were creative and flexible. Students were eager to learn and accommodating of the new rules. I know from colleagues in other places, that I was lucky — it wasn’t like that everywhere. While it remains to be seen what lessons will actually be learned, one thing I do hope the educational system takes away from this is how quickly we were able to shift when we had no other choice. Sometimes in education it feels like things don’t change because that’s the way they’ve always been and changing would be too hard. Covid has shown us that we can change and still educate kids.
If you know someone you would like to see featured in Five Questions, contact Jim Franco at 518-878-1000 or [email protected]