116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Mali has been a very good girl — and a very busy girl — this year.
The curly-haired toddler is just 1 year and 9 months old, but she already knows how to sign the book in which she stars.
On cue, the petite goldendoodle lifts her right paw, which her human mom then presses onto an ink pad with a protective cover, and voila — she leaves her imprint on the book, but the ink doesn’t leave its imprint on her paw.
Meet Mali, the University of Iowa’s first full-time therapy dog, a beloved new member of the women’s softball team.
Mary Griffith Chalupsky, 84, of Cedar Rapids, has captured the journey from puppy to Hawkeye in a new children’s book, “Meet Mali the Therapy Dog.”
Mali and Mary are eager to share their story and signatures in person, but that will have to wait until COVID-19 threats subsides, since Chalupsky has a medical condition that prevents her from being vaccinated. They were all set to sit near Santa at NewBo City Market this month, until Chalupsky’s doctor said no.
They’re both good at obeying orders, so for now, Mali’s books are available online from Amazon.com, where you’ll find lots of Chalupsky’s other children’s books, including “Puppy Pirates,” “Jimmy’s Adventures,” “Tales from the Enchanted Forest,” “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge,” and “Wings, Fins, a Bully and Friends: Searching for Acceptance.”
Chalupsky makes sure her books always have a moral, she said, “so they're actually good books for kids and they tell a story.”
Chalupsky and Mali have good stories on their own, as well as together.
This little girl knows hand-signal commands, but doesn’t know a stranger. She is sweet and obedient, and the rock star for the UI women’s softball team, where her mom, Erin Doud-Johnson, 42, of Fairfax, is an alum and volunteer assistant coach.
Doud-Johnson was with the team in Florida when the pandemic shutdown hit, striking out the rest of the team’s 2019-20 season.
“Coach (Renee) Gillespie and I had noticed — not just because of the pandemic, but just in general — that the mental health of student athletes was a really big thing, not just within our program, but within all programs throughout the country,” Doud-Johnson said.
“And so we thought, that with everything that was going on, it might be good to start training at that point to have a therapy dog on staff — to be there for our student athletes, whether it's personal or school-related or on the field. And so that's what I did.”
She already had started searching for a pup like Mali.
“Before that, I wanted a therapy dog for personal use and for the community,” she said, “but after our conversations with Coach Gillespie, we thought, well, if the university would approve this, she would be the first therapy dog, not just at the University of Iowa that was working full time, but also within the Big Ten.”
Doud-Johnson found Mali at Kimberlee’s Kennels in Decorah, a breeder known for having the genetic qualities suited to therapy and service animals. The Johnson family brought her home in April 2020, during Easter week.
“For this particular situation, I needed to have a specific bloodline and breed for the temperament,” Doud-Johnson said, adding that the “petite” size means Mali will fit under an airplane seat, so she can travel with the team by air as well as by bus.
She worked with Mali for about a year and a half, first online, then with in-person instruction to get her fully trained. Together, they earned a therapy dog certification in July.
“She had to master her basic training requirements before we (myself and personal trainer Laura King of Kings Creatures) could start specific therapy dog training requirements,” Doud-Johnson said. “She got officially certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs this past July to be ready for our 2021-2022 softball season. Her official start date was August 2021 as a Hawkeye.”
Doud-Johnson calls Mali “a positive distraction,” meeting the softball team on the field or at the practice facility. She gives the players a chance to leave behind their classroom worries, forget about the outside world, relax, and receive needed support as they go through drills or games.
Mali also is a regular visitor at a senior living facility, and Doud-Johnson is looking forward to the day when they can visit area hospitals and care centers.
Chalupsky has been writing poetry “for years,” starting in her days working the fields on her family’s farm south of Fairfax.
“I would be driving the tractor and I think of something and I'd stop and I'd write (it) down my little book. And so that's kind of how I got started. And I thought one time, why not put all this stuff in the book? So I did that,” she said.
She’s won five awards through the World Poetry Association, beginning in 1987.
She also told stories to her granddaughter, who was 3 at the time. Weary of talking about princesses, Chalupsky decided to tell the true tale of a tiny runaway piglet — just a few days old — who escaped the farrowing house and started walking up the road.
"Our feed man came driving in the driveway and he had this little pig under his arm. He knew where it came from,” she said. ”I had no idea how it could have gotten where it got, but it certainly did.”
Chalupsky’s granddaughter was intrigued by the tale and thought the wandering piglet needed a name. She suggested “Jogger,” since the little guy jogged to get home.
The story turned into a book, and now Chalupsky has written 15 books about Jogger’s adventures.
“Jogger is like a little boy — he does everything a little boy would do,” Chalupsky said. “So that's kind of the beginning of my writing, and I just discovered I love to do it. It was exciting to me to just go away somewhere with a pencil or my laptop and tablet and just write about whatever came in my head.”
Writing also has become therapeutic for Chalupsky. She began putting the Jogger stories into rhyming book form following the death of her husband in 2009, and it’s also sustained her through the death of a daughter in 2018 and a son-in-law in February, as well as other serious illnesses within her family.
Nearly 30 titles are listed in the back of Mali’s book. During the pandemic, the prolific writer has turned out 13 books. Since she shares a home with her daughter, Trish Chalupsky, she hasn’t been totally isolated.
Trish, who serves as her mom’s editor, went to school with Doud-Johnson’s husband, entertainment promoter Jeff Johnson. They’ve stayed in touch over the years, so a couple of conversations this summer led the author to Mali’s story.
“I love to write about dogs,” said Chalupsky, whose faithful writing companion is a 14-year-old bichon named Buttons, who provides her own kind of therapy.
“She's got me through a lot of trials and tribulations,” Chalupsky said. “She’s my little buddy. She sits with me most of the time when I'm writing. Matter of fact, some of those words might be hers. I sit here with my laptop and she's just hanging across the board. She just has been a real good therapy dog for me.”
One of Chalupsky’s biggest hurdles was getting the books published, so she established her own Corridor Publishing, and works with formatters and illustrators she’s found by networking with other authors online. Mali’s book is the third time Chalupsky has worked with Egyptian journalist and illustrator Mohsen Abdel Hafeez Abdel Aal, who based his drawings on the photos from the pup’s private Facebook page.
She’s also had to step up to the plate a few times to do her own formatting, which came with its own learning curve. And she has to use both last names, since she’s discovered “three or four Mary Griffiths and three or four Mary Chalupskys” who write, she said with a laugh.
She isn’t getting rich off her writings, even though her books are worldwide, noting that her eBooks are especially popular in Japan.
“I haven't really made a profit, but I could if I was out doing more advertising,” she said. “That's the problem. You've got to be out there, you've got to have the book in front of the public.”
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