Imagine you’re writing a shopping list. You drop your pen. Now imagine you can’t pick it up. Simple tasks like retrieving an object from the floor, opening doors or calling for help can be impossible feats for some people with physical disabilities. Helping Paws is a local nonprofit organization that specially trains service dogs to further the independence of people with physical disabilities.
The nonprofit was founded in 1988 and places 10 to 16 dogs with recipients each year. Dogs trained and placed by Helping Paws are golden or Labrador retrievers from its own breeding program. These particular breeds work well as service dogs because they have a natural desire to work with people, a retrieving instinct, are easy to care for and have a friendly disposition.
Volunteer fosters train Helping Paws’ service dogs. Foster trainers receive an 8-week-old puppy and commit to two full years of training. Helping Paws director of development Pamela Anderson says, “Foster trainers must bring their puppy to our weekly training sessions. During training, any dog deemed a poor fit for service work—because it’s skittish or has allergies or poor health—could be re-careered as a therapy dog.” She notes that foster trainers are given first opportunity to keep a dog considered unsuitable for service work.
Katy Shannon is a retired schoolteacher and a volunteer foster dog trainer for Helping Paws. She saw a Helping Paws booth at the Minnesota State Fair and says, “I love to serve others and I have a passion for dogs. Being a foster trainer is a great marriage of those ideals.” Shannon has been working with her first foster dog, Aida, since June. “We learn a new skill to work on each week and are always given homework,” Shannon says.
Shannon takes pride in creating an asset that will eventually provide great benefit to another person. “I’m trying to make Aida a really good retriever for a person with limited mobility,” she says. “I also want Aida to be obedient and well-mannered in public, and be affectionate and able to give comfort.”
Shannon and a few other foster trainers meet after their weekly training sessions. “We call ourselves ‘the underdogs,’ ” Shannon says, a name derived from the dogs’ practice of lying quietly under a table while the trainers chat. “We share our joys and challenges,” she says. “Not only are we learning a lot about dog behavior, but we’re building friendships.”
Jennifer Peterson became the first recipient of a trained Helping Paws dog; she is in a wheelchair after an accident 30 years ago. “I put the pieces of my world back together after the accident,” says Peterson, “but there was still this huge void.”
She has since benefited from four service dogs. Her fourth dog, named Aster, helps Peterson with picking up dropped items and opening and closing doors. “I also value Aster’s ability to bark on command if I need help,” she says. “Having a playful companion that can go everywhere with me is a bonus. She is the most loving, cuddly dog I’ve ever had.”
In order for the arrangement to work, Peterson provides primary care for Aster. Dogs are not robots; it’s a relationship that takes energy and priority. Creating a human and animal bond is what prompts a service dog to want to do things for its owner.
That bond makes the retirement or death of a service dog difficult for owners. Having a service dog is a way of life for people like Peterson. And Helping Paws’ commitment goes beyond initial placement. Peterson says, “Hopefully I’ll have Aster for 10 to 12 years, but it’s nice to have the support of Helping Paws when change happens.”
Learn more at helpingpaws.org.