When 3-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever and therapy dog LiLi of the Laurel Highlands made a beeline for a woman at a support group for parents who have lost babies, Jan Mallak thought something was up.
LiLi suspected the woman’s good news before she could even share her new pregnancy with the group, said Mallak, the dog’s owner.
She also seems to know when her particular type of sympathy is needed.
“They will be crying, and she will go right over to them,” said Mallak, 65, of Export.
A doula nearing retirement, Mallak facilitates the Lost & Found support group for Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank (soon to be called Mid-Atlantic Milk Bank) in Pittsburgh.
Monthly meetings are held for parents who have lost a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death.
“We call it perinatal loss,” Mallak said.
LiLi accompanies Mallak to the meetings, and her owner believes she is the first therapy dog in the area to work with a bereavement support group.
Mallak served as Three Rivers’ board treasurer for three years.
Owner and operator of Heart and Hands Doula for over 20 years, Mallak said most people define that role as “something like a professional labor coach.”
Doulas can help after birth as mothers adjust to the changes a newborn brings or fill in until family members can help. They watch for red flags like postpartum depression, problems with breast feeding or a baby’s jaundice.
“We don’t provide medical care, but we can recognize certain things and suggest calling a doctor,” she said.
Certified as a childbirth educator through the International Childbirth Education Association, the mother of two continues to train doulas. Easing into retirement, she recently closed Heart and Hands.
“It’s been a real career and a real passion,” she said.
She and her husband, Frank, adopted LiLi after their American Bulldog died.
“We missed that presence in the household. We wanted this breed because we knew it was a good therapy dog. That was something Frank and I wanted to do in retirement,” Mallak said.
LiLi received her training at Westmoreland County Obedience Training Club Thera-Paws in Delmont and is registered through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
Both certified therapy dog handlers, the couple take LiLi to nursing homes, hospitals, schools and libraries regularly.
Mallak served as doula for Three Rivers’ executive director Denise O’Connor, who researched having the milk bank offer a grief support group and suggested Mallak serve as facilitator.
“It just totally makes sense. Plus, Jan is very good at leading talks. … It’s worked out very well,” O’Connor said.
Participants find LiLi’s presence at the meetings comforting, she said.
“Dogs have a unique way of communicating with us,” O’Connor said.
Mallak’s experience as a doula is a good fit for the support group, O’Connor said.
She can draw on her experience of having worked with couples who have suffered a loss and listen to their concerns as they consider another pregnancy.
“That’s the beauty of having Jan,” O’Connor said.
Mallak completed bereavement support training and created a program to help support the grieving mothers, some of whom choose to donate milk for other babies.
“I think that is just amazing. At a time when they feel like their baby has been ripped away from them, they can focus on pumping and freezing milk to honor their children,” Mallak said.
LiLi knows that when her collar and leash come out, it’s time to go to work.
Mallak said she and LiLi often find the best help they provide is listening.
“I call it the laying on of ears,” she said.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or [email protected] or via Twitter @MaryPickels.