Every year, a hoard of wide-eyed, slobber-tongued puppies comes parading into our hearts and our time between classes here at Wittenberg. These puppies are on their way to big things, just like every other student here at Witt. A part of the 4Paws program, dogs are paired with disabled recipients who are in need of an assistance dog for a variety of reasons.
Karen Shirk, the founder of 4Paws which is based out of neighboring Xenia, Ohio, was diagnosed in 1994 with Myasthenia Gravis, which is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain, causing muscle weakness and fatigue. After being turned down by agency after agency for being either not disabled enough, not disabled the right way, and even simply for being on a ventilator, Shirk took matters into her own hands. After finding a 30 pound black German Shepard Dog, whom she named “Ben, My Courage and Friend,” she got to work training him. In 1996, after almost 10 years out of work, Shirk returned to work with Ben and a whole new vigor for life. In 1998, she started 4Paws, promising to never turn away a disabled person in need of a dog.
In 2002, Ben was diagnosed with his own neurological condition, Degenerative Mylopathy, which causes progressive paralysis. After Ben returned “to a place where all dogs run and play, where there are bones growing on trees, and treats fall from the sky,” Shirk did not let the love that Ben instilled in her go to waste. She started 4Paws and adopted 4 children, naming the first of her children Benjamin, after the companion that had saved her life, in more ways than one.
Since 1998, 4Paws has placed over 750 dogs, ranging from the itty-bitty Papillion to the biggest of German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers, with loving recipients. 4Paws dogs aren’t just your average guide dog, and it isn’t easy or cheap to train them. “Training begins before birth with selection of the dogs to be bred,” said Shirk. “From the minute they are born, they are socialized and prepared for service dog work.” Every dog has a bit of a different story, though. Some dogs go to foster homes, some go to prison, and some go to college.
The puppies that pad around Wittenberg are usually between four and eight months old and are in the process of being socialized. Handlers must live outside of residential halls and apply through the Office of Student Development. Two handlers will take turns with the dog, teaching and reinforcing basic commands and getting them used to different environments within three hours of the 4Paws office in Xenia, Ohio. No doubt it’s hard work, but many handlers think it’s well worth the work. Andera Gaietto ’15, who is the co-handler of a six month old Labrador-Retriever mix named Saxby, said “It’s such a rewarding feeling to know that I am helping a dog to soon help a special child who will really benefit from having a service dog to assist them.”
After being socialized by your average foster family, prisoner, or college student here at Wittenberg, the dog goes on to more specialized training based on their personalities and how well they socialzied. The average dog costs between $22,000 and $46,000 to train from birth until it’s ready to go home with its “forever family.” The dogs are completely free to the recipients, but in turn they are asked to fundraise $13,000 to help cover the cost of their companion’s training. “4Paws does their own fundraising and grant writing,” Shirk added.
4Paws dogs include Mobility and Autism Assistance, as well as Hearing Ear and Medical Alert dogs, but the program itself created two unique programs – Facilitated Guide Dogs and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD) Assistance Dogs, which can only be acquired from 4Paws. With Facilitated Guide Dogs, a child learns to depend on their dog instead of an adult. FASD Assistance dogs help in many of the same ways as Autism Assistance dogs do, by helping to manage the mood and anxiety problems that come along with the disorder. 4Paws even helped create 4Paws For Veterans, allowing veterans with combat-related hearing loss or physical injuries to gain more independence using a highly trained dog to help them in their day-to-day lives.
So next time you see a puppy padding down Alumni Way between classes, remember that the adorable little dog enjoying the attention is going on to do things bigger than a lab puppy’s paws.
Follow 4Paws on Twitter! @4PawsForAbility