Professor David Soren (background) teaches his class at the University of Arizona as his helper dog, Angel, keeps busy with a bone.
The energy of 530 undergraduates pulsed through a University of Arizona lecture recently as Regents’ Professor David Soren entered.
Hands reached out toward the 62-year-old classical archaeologist, but they weren’t greeting him.
Instead, they were trying to stroke Angel, the 12-year-old golden retriever-cocker spaniel mix trailing Soren at the end of a pink leash.
Angel is Soren’s service dog, and her meandering way is one way she helps keep him alive. And for students in Soren’s Classical Art and Culture of the 1930s class, the dog’s a bonus.
“If anything, she brings more interactivity,” said Brandon Coontz, 20, a junior business major. “He’ll make jokes about her and it’s a great way to get us paying attention.”
In 1982, Soren was running UA’s classics department and suffering from blood pressure that was so high he jokes that his medical printouts read, “Notify next of kin.”
He’d been warned a decade earlier, while working in Tunisia on a Smithsonian Institution archeological dig, that his workaholic lifestyle was life-threatening, but habits die hard.
“I worked pretty much around the clock and it got me to a certain point in my career, but it also got me to the point of collapse,” Soren said.
After being laid up from an ulcer, he tried to slow down, but he was back to his self-induced heavy work schedule at UA by the early 1980s. Dangerous blood pressure readings led to a doctor’s lecture on workaholism and an unusual prescription: get a dog and take it to work.
Not sure if it would work, but convinced he would die without intervention, Soren got the blessing of UA officials, and purchased his first dog, Digger.
Unlike service dogs for the blind or those using wheelchairs, Digger wasn’t trained to perform special-needs-specific tasks. Instead, he was trained to be polite on a large campus and in noisy lecture halls and to sit near Soren’s left side to remind the professor to pet him.
The treatment worked. Within weeks, Soren’s doctors noticed his blood pressure reading moving toward normal, and the professor felt more relaxed.
“I probably could have kept going for awhile,” Soren said, “but I probably would have died. I owe my life to my dog.”
Digger passed away after 12 years of service and Soren tried going it alone. Within three months, however, his stress level started to rise “and I didn’t know what to do with my left hand.”
So he and his wife, Noelle, got Angel, and the dog has been a fixture at UA ever since.
When Soren is sitting, Angel is at his left side and the professor continually strokes her back as he speaks. When he’s lecturing, Angel sits in the front row with students, and as the pair walk across campus, Angel performs her slow-Soren-down task.
“It took me awhile to get used to that,” he said. “But dogs are professors in a way; they show you what you’re not observing. ”
Soren said people sometimes wonder why he has a dog in public places when he doesn’t have an obvious disability, but UA is “very sensitive to disabled people.”
“People can make light of stress, but it’s a kind of disability that can really lay you low,” he said.
Liza Battestin, a 21-year-old Interdisciplinary Studies senior, said the dog is definitely not the reason the professor’s classes are so popular.
“Students come here for Soren,” she said. “The way he articulates the subject matter is wonderful. He could get anyone interested in this stuff. I think people love Angel, but they come for Soren because he’s a great teacher.”
Petting Angel helps David Soren manage his stress.