Chelsea had nowhere to go. She’d finally left an abusive relationship, but the only shelter with an open bed wouldn’t allow her dog unless he was vaccinated.
“I wasn’t going to leave him behind,” she recalls. “If we couldn’t stay together, I was going back.”
That’s where Ruthless Kindness stepped in. The California non-profit offers free mobile veterinary care to community members in crisis. Soon the organization’s co-founder, CEO and licensed veterinarian Sarah Reidenbach was at Chelsea’s door. “She gave me a hug and told me it was going to be okay,” Chelsea remembers. “Then she examined and vaccinated my dog, clearing the way for us to get into the shelter together.”
Chelsea’s experience isn’t an outlier. Most homeless shelters won’t allow pets, and those that do require documentation affirming that animals have up-to-date vaccinations and no other medical conditions. Though it sounds simple, this often poses a significant barrier for many escaping an abusive situation.
“We know half of all domestic violence victims won’t leave their abuser unless their pets can escape, too,” Reidenbach explains. “Many of our clients don’t have the money, time or transportation to go to a traditional vet clinic. We provide our services free of charge, using a mobile unit that can travel to them.”
In addition to vet care, Ruthless Kindness also offers free pet food and supplies, conducts animal-assisted empathy education programs for youth impacted by trauma and more.
“There are so many innocent people and animals who are going through unthinkable pain, and we have the power to do something about it,” Reidenbach insists. “We help the vulnerable — people who are without a home or are housing insecure, people trying to survive in extreme poverty, people who have been victimized and abused – and the animals they love.”
Raven Rock Ranch
When Irene* arrived at Raven Rock Ranch, she’d given up on life. She was failing high school, choosing the wrong kind of friends and had attempted suicide. Then along came Rooney, a gentle bay gelding who fell in love with the troubled teen.
“Rooney would follow her around wherever she went,” recalls Sandy Matts, chief mental health officer and director of Raven Rock Ranch. “The feeling was mutual. With Rooney, Irene felt alive and happy.”
Slowly, the grip of depression loosened, and Irene began to make better choices. She graduated from high school on time – a feat her mom called a “miracle” – and is now attending college. According to Matts, the rescued thoroughbred gelding, once destined for the kill pen, is a big reason for Irene’s transformation.
Sandy founded Raven Rock specifically for kids like Irene, drawing on her own experience as an at-risk teen positively impacted by her childhood horse. The nonprofit, which rescues horses and pairs them with troubled kids, started with just one horse and a single client. Today, nine horses call Raven Rock home and the organization reports helping scores of children and families in its decade-plus run.
“Ninety-eight percent of our clients come in with suicidal ideation, but after one year of treatment, that number drops to less than two percent,” Matts explains, but it’s the stories behind the statistics that drive home the importance of Raven Rock Ranch. She adds, “I have countless notes and emails from kids and their parents telling me that they would not be alive if not for the ranch.”
*Client name changed for privacy reasons.
Paws for Purple Hearts
Booth is a two-year-old black lab with a smile that makes your heart bubble and a helicopter tail that looks about ready to take off. She’s also a service dog, with a mission to help veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries and similar trauma-related conditions.
Booth is part of Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH), a first-of-its-kind program offering Canine Assisted Warrior Therapy® for wounded service members and veterans. The non-profit was founded and continues to be led by Dr. Bonnie Bergin, one of the world’s leading researchers in service dog therapy.
Today, PPH is a national organization with seven facilities across the country. It is accredited by Assistance Dog International and is one of three programs invited to participate in the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act pilot program – an initiative launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Dogs are far more intuitive than people often give them credit for,” notes Danielle Stockbridge, a marketing and communication specialist with PPH. “They can pick up on the emotional state of a Warrior before the Warrior can sort out how they’re feeling themselves. The dogs provide comfort without judgment.”
A recent session with Booth offers a prime example. The black lab had taken a liking to one of PPH’s clients. While the veteran has worked with several dogs, her connection with Booth is special. “Booth makes her feel calmer and less anxious,” Stockbridge explains, recalling a recent incident where the intuitive canine put her training into action. “The veteran was having intrusive thoughts. Booth picked up on it, nudged her and laid across her lap to provide stress-reducing pressure.” With a little help from the canine, the veteran was able to break free from dark thoughts.
These moments – big and small – are daily occurrences at PPH. “Through our canine-assisted therapeutic programs and Assistance Dog placements, I get to see Warriors lives changed every day,” Stockbridge adds. It’s a program she wishes had been available to her grandfather, a veteran who struggled with flashbacks, anger and alcoholism. “It’s my goal that no family has to suffer the way my mother’s family did, and that every Warrior is able to get the help they need.”
Brave Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center
Bobby was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, he struggles with a seizure disorder and uses a wheelchair to get around. Throughout his life he has endured multiple surgeries and countless hours of therapy and procedures. It was on the way to one of those appointments that his mom noticed the new sign for Brave Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center.
“My mom is a horse person, so she’d been on the lookout for an equine therapy program,” Bobby recalls. “She called right away, and I became one of their first students.”
At the time, then six-year-old Bobby became fast friends with Leia, a half-Arabian chestnut mare. With Leia, Bobby grew stronger, improved his balance, built confidence and even found his voice. He explains, “I wasn’t talking to anyone else at the time, but after a week or two, my mom said I started talking to Leia like she was a person as soon as I rolled into the barn.”
Now 22 years old, Bobby acknowledges he wasn’t the child who would receive playdates, sleepovers or birthday party invites. He said, “Week after week, my barn friends – both animal and human – became my opportunity to socialize and hang out.”
Brave Meadows’ director, Shannon Patrick, founded the center with the aim of improving lives like Bobby’s through the healing power of horses. “Running Brave Meadows is a labor of love, and while it can be challenging, it’s also incredibly rewarding,” she noted. “We’re a place where people and animals come to find comfort, joy and a sense of belonging, and we’re so proud of the work we do and the impact we have on our community.”
Portland Animal Welfare Team
James and his beloved dog Roscoe are indicative of the clients that the Portland Animal Welfare (PAW) team serve. A degenerative arthritic condition left James out of work and unhoused. But when his four-legged best friend Roscoe developed chronically infected ears and skin irritations, the PAW Team stepped in to provide the medication and prescription diet he needed – all free of charge. Their story has a happy ending; not only are Roscoe’s skin and ear conditions well managed, the two found housing through a local organization.
James and Roscoe’s experience illustrates PAW Team’s mission: saving lives, alleviating suffering and keeping pets and people together by providing free and low-cost veterinary care. “Anyone who has an animal knows the pain of watching that pet suffer,” says Nicole Perkins, the non-profit’s Executive Director of Development and Operations. “PAW Team offers our clients access to the services they need to keep their beloved pets healthy and happy.”
The Portland, Oregon, non-profit’s roots extend to the early 1990’s, long before it became an official organization in 2003. Then, a small, grassroots network of volunteer veterinarians set out to help a growing population of homeless pet owners who were unable to access veterinary care for their four-legged companions. In the following decades, the PAW Team has grown to provide more comprehensive services and support countless families in need.
“I think the PAW Team’s beginnings explain it all,” Perkins emphasizes. “People saw a need, they wanted to help and so they did.” Today, that legacy continues as the volunteer-powered nonprofit continues to provide vital veterinary services for more than 1,000 Portland-area families annually, aiding individuals living on the streets, in transitional shelters or government housing, as well as those faced with temporary financial hardship.
“Our tagline is that we ‘heal pets and the hearts of their people’ through veterinary care, and we see this reality every day,” Perkins says. “Our clients face many obstacles in their lives, but they still prioritize their pets needs above all else. Their pets are their family, and we help them keep them together, despite financial hardship.”
Piketon High School FFA
Agriculture education teacher Kristen Campbell loves teaching high schoolers about agriculture and veterinary science. Her passion is clearly infectious – which explains why one in five Piketon High School students participated in Agriculture classes last year.
Under Campbell’s watchful eye, students learn to care for all kinds of animals, including chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep, horses, miniature pigs, dogs, cats and yes – even a bearded dragon. “The more students learn about these animals, the better care they provide and the deeper they understand how important animals are to their livelihood,” she says.
While the class curriculum aims to give students a solid grounding in animal husbandry, students also benefit from the connections formed with the classroom animals. “The animals don’t judge,” Campbell explains, “they just provide love and support.”
For troubled teens, Campbell’ Agriculture classes can become a refuge against life’s trials, disappointments and tragedies. She recalls how one young student, struggling after the death of sibling, found solace in the classroom rabbit. Then there’s the high schooler who came from a verbally abusive home.
“She absolutely fell in love with one of our little chicks,” Campbell recalls. “Every time she held it, her face lit up with a big smile like they were meant to be together.” Seeing a connection that shouldn’t be broken, Kristen arranged for the student to care for the chick at her grandparents’ home.
Piketon’s Agriculture students already benefit greatly from their animal education coursework, but their intrepid teacher has her sights set on creating a more comprehensive learning environment. Currently, larger animals are brought in for a day, but Kristen aims to give her teens more in-depth interactions and responsibilities. She’s currently raising funds to install a small livestock barn at the high school, enabling student to gain more hands-on experience with daily animal care.
Mission Animal Hospital
When Fuzz arrived at Mission Animal Hospital, the situation was grim. The orange and white feline had been caught in the crossfire of neighborhood gun violence, and the cost for treating his wound seemed out of reach for his family. Thankfully, a veterinarian referred his owner to Mission, where a skilled team soon determined his injured leg would require amputation. Without Mission’s subsidized veterinary care, Fuzz’s family would have been forced to make difficult choices. Instead, he was soon home, adapting to his new life.
“Poverty impacts nearly every aspect of a person’s life, but the impact it has on pet owners and their animal companions is among the most devastating,” says Christine Durand, development director at Mission. “It’s painful to lose a pet due to old age or other natural causes, but it’s even more traumatic when a pet must be surrendered or euthanized due to financial limitations.”
Founded in 2015, Mission Animal Hospital aims to offer low-income families another option. The Minnesota-based non-profit provides a range of services, from wellness pet check-ups to urgent care surgery. Last year alone, Mission provided more than $1.5 million in subsidized care to 6,000 families. And it’s not just about pets.
“We care for their people, too,” Christine emphasizes. “We understand the human-pet bond runs deep.” That’s why Mission’s staff includes a social worker, to assist clients with difficult medical decisions, grief counseling and even housing or food insecurity. It’s a novel approach to pet care – but one Christine says pays dividends every day.
To quantify that value, Mission partnered with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and Ecotone Analytics. Their research found that for every dollar invested in Mission, there was a $4.64 social return, with benefits that included improved quality of life from pet companionship, lower veterinary care costs and reduced healthcare expenses for pet owners. “Those result speak to the larger social benefits of pet ownership, and the need to provide pet owners with affordable options for veterinary care,” Christine emphasizes.
Fuzz and his family certainly agree!
Assistance Dogs of the West
For Marcie, service dog Fenway is a beacon of independence.
“He never gets tired of helping me, no matter how many times I drop my cell phone,” she explains. “He’s as excited as if it is the first time he’s ever assisted me, and the look of joy and satisfaction on his face is priceless.”
Marcie and Fenway are just one of the hundreds of success stories made possible by Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW). Since 1995, the New Mexico non-profit has paired service dogs with clients requiring support for mobility impairments, autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities and more.
More recently, ADW added a courthouse dog program, which places canines in criminal justice settings. In this role, the service dogs work with crime victims, predominantly children, offering comfort and security as they provide depositions and give testimony in court.
“Our service dogs open so many opportunities for the clients they support,” says ADW volunteer Susan Rivenbark. As a Puppy Raiser, Susan has raised and trained five ADW dogs, witnessing first-hand the transformative impact they can have – whether partnered with a single client or selected for ADW’s courthouse dog program.
Long-time client Marcie concurs, noting, “ADW has made a tremendous impact on the overall quality of my life. They breed and train the most incredible dogs that are tailored to my disability-related needs. Fenway and ADW are the rainbow in what could have been a dark cloud.”
Pilots to the Rescue
When aviator Michael Schneider embarked on his first mission to rescue a litter of puppies slated to be euthanized, he likely never envisioned how far the journey would take him. Eight years later, the non-profit he founded, Pilots to the Rescue (PTTR), has saved more than 1,000 animals from certain death.
“I’d been looking for a sense of purpose and fulfillment for a very long time,” Schneider reflects. “It only took COVID-19 and 44 years to realize what I wanted to do when I grow up.”
While Michael formally launched PTTR in 2015, he upped his commitment during the pandemic, turning his side project into a full-time crusade. Today, the non-profit’s volunteer pilots travel the country, transporting animals in need. Already this year, the organization has coordinated 32 rescue flights that have connected 371 dogs, cats and the occasional turtle with new forever homes.
“Most of the animals come from precarious situations – hoarding, abuse and neglect, or other unhealthy environments,” Schneider explains. “But all you really need to do is love the animal, and it will come back to you tenfold.”
Schneider, PTTR’s self-described “Top Dog,” says the animals with the biggest needs are the ones he remembers best. He quickly rattles off a few names: Hopper born with cerebral palsy, Surf born blind, Cye the one-eyed cat who was a victim of gun violence, and Maynard, a three-legged lab mix. Schneider adds, “The thing that amazes adopters of these animals is they are unaware the animals are different. Their resilience is admirable and a learning lesson for humans – be happy with your health and respect those who are less fortunate.”
Patriot PAWS Service Dogs
Tyanhna a disabled Army veteran, rarely left her home due to struggles with pain, limited mobility, and PTSD. Then she met Dude and life got a little bit easier.
“I’d really given up, and then I found Patriot PAWS,” she recalls. “Now Dude goes with me everywhere. He gets me out of the house, at least for a walk…and whether the pain is really bad or it’s a good day, he’s always there.”
When Lori Stevens founded Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, she admits to underestimating the demand. “It never crossed my mind that there would be a waiting list for people in need of working dogs,” she says. “I quickly learned the reality – demand for well-trained dogs far outpaces supply.”
In part, that’s due to the high cost to care for and train these canines. On average, it takes $35,000 and 24 to 30 months for a young dog to complete the Patriot PAWS training program. To help meet the ever-growing need, the Texas-based non-profit relies on dedicated volunteers, including an innovative program with three correctional facilities run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Lori says inmates who choose to participate in the program get a new “leash on life.” In addition to career training, they learn critical life skills such as conflict resolution, time management, and problem-solving – all while gaining a sense of purpose. The program’s benefits are clear, from the low recidivism rate (just 3%) to the change in how participating inmates interact with others.
The non-profit’s army of volunteers also includes college students and other community members. Thanks to this combined support, Patriot PAWS has paired more than 300 service dogs with veterans and others with mobility disabilities, all at no cost to the recipients.
“You can see a veteran’s life change before your very eyes, because of a dog. Their whole demeanor changes” says Sherri, a Patriot PAWS volunteer. “They can feel the weight of life lifted off their chests and they know tomorrow will be brighter with this companion by their side. Patriot PAWS is truly doing life-changing work.”
Caring People Alliance
At a Boys & Girls Club in North Philadelphia, there’s a small animal zoo that’s doing big things. Run by the Caring People Alliance, the zoo’s bunnies, guinea pigs and pet rats teach youth about responsible pet ownership, build compassion for animals, and provide a space for troubled kids to relax and reset.
“Every day, I feel like I am making a difference, both to the kids and the animals,” says Jessica Bachrach, who serves as the coordinator for the program, called Caring Paws. “Sometimes we talk about the animals, but other times, we’ll talk about things that are going on in the world or in their lives.” Often, the animals serve as a bridge to important life lessons.
Given the animals’ relatively short life spans, nearly every child experiences the sorrow associated with saying goodbye to a beloved animal friend. “For some kids, it may be their first experience with death; for others, it’s an opportunity to talk about the death of a friend or family member,” Jessica explains. “We work through all those hard feelings together.”
When the children talk about how Caring Paws has impacted them, many say that it’s fun or they like helping to care for the animals. But some find bigger lessons, too. Before Sophia started participating in Caring Paws, she was afraid of rats. Now, she’s discovered that it’s not fair to judge animals based on their reputation. “I learned that not all animals are what they seem to be,” she explains and admits that the pet rats are now among her favorite Caring Paws critters.
That’s part of the magic at Caring Paws, where kids learn as much about themselves as the animals they care for. “Animals have a unique power to impact the lives of people,” Jessica emphasizes. “They depend on us for everything, so taking care of them can be empowering.” No matter your age, it seems we could all learn a thing or two from the kids and animals at Caring Paws.
Dogs for Better Lives
Canines who become assistance dogs are pretty special – just ask Amy Hogue. She relies on her hearing assistance dog Mindy to be her ears, alerting her to specific sounds and situations.
“With Mindy at my side, I don’t feel anxious about what I’m missing out on because of my deafness,” Amy says. “Before Mindy, my world was sedentary and gray. Then she came into my life, and it’s as though it exploded in technicolor. In so many ways, she has taught me how to live and experience life.”
Danielle Kempe, a development manager for Dogs for Better Lives (DBL), never tires of stories like Amy’s. Since its founding in 1977, the nonprofit has worked to professionally train dogs to help people and enhance lives. Today, it specializes in hearing assistance, autism assistance, and facility dogs, and is the only accredited service dog organization that serves the entire U.S. Along the way, the nonprofit has rescued and placed more than 1,300 dogs.
“Our assistance dogs can be a powerful tool for restoring autonomy and independence for individuals living with a disability, and a welcome addition to many families and support networks,” Danielle explains, emphasizing that DBL trains and places rescue dogs at no cost to the client.
The group’s hearing assistance dogs learn to alert people to household sounds that are necessary for everyday safety and independence. Its autism assistance dogs enhance the safety of children with autism by acting as an anchor and preventing the child from bolting. Its facility dogs work with professionals such as physicians, teachers, counselors, police officers, and child advocates, providing a calming, accepting and comforting presence, often in difficult times.
For more than 40 years, Dogs for Better Lives has been enriching the lives of both canines and clients, and Danielle says DBL looks forward to continuing this mission for another 40 years. “Too often, individuals living with a disability are forced to sacrifice a measure of independence to navigate their lives safely,” she says. “Our assistance dogs make a huge difference in their lives.”
Saving Grace K9s
When Brigette Parson Dean started Saving Grace K9s, she was confident she’d be helping veterans suffering with PTSD. What she didn’t realize was how much they would change her life, too.
“I see such strength in them, as they keep moving regardless of their pain,” she says. “They inspire me to keep going during my own dark times.”
Unlike most service dog organizations, Saving Grace teaches its clients how to train their own service dog. This move helps keep costs down and allows the non-profit to serve more North Carolina vets in need. Many of the dogs are rescues from a local shelter, but sometimes, Saving Grace staff determine the veteran’s own dog has the skills and temperament to become a service dog.
Regardless of the dog’s past, those that complete Saving Grace’s training program fill important roles in the lives of the veterans they serve. Brigette notes that on at least two occasions, the dogs have prevented their veteran-partners from committing suicide. In one instance, the dog pushed a gun away; in the other, the canine’s unrelenting barking and scratching at the door saved his partner from tragedy. More typically, however, the service dogs help their veterans awaken during nightmares, provide comfort during anxiety attacks and remain grounded when faced with triggering events.
For disabled veteran James Dean, having a trained service dog has been a life-changer. His two dogs, Rebel (now retired due to health issues) and Chunk, help him have a more normal life. “My dogs know when I’m not doing well, mentally or physically,” James says. “They will lay on me because they know it’ll calm me, and they keep me from startling so easily when we are out. With them in my life, I can do things with my family and not have to be constantly on guard.”
Today, James serves as the Veteran Liaison for Saving Grace, a role he relishes as it allows him to help fellow veterans through the training process, from start to finish. “I’ve seen animals change lives – and save lives – through this organization,” he says. No wonder he, Brigette and the rest of the Saving Grace team work so hard to provide North Carolina veterans with what they call a four-legged lifeline.
Project 2 Heal
For Charlie Petrizzo, a desire to serve, a deep faith and a love of dogs propelled him to launch Project2Heal, a one-of-a-kind program to breed and raise puppies specifically for use as service dogs.
Few service dog groups have their own puppy breeding program. Instead, most rely on dogs taken from shelters. But Charlie learned just 1 in 12 of these rescued pups become successful service dogs. A big reason for the failure rate: The most important phase of a dog’s development occurs during the first 12 weeks of its life.
“Two-thirds of what a puppy will become as an adult dog is determined by the nurturing, training, and socialization it experiences during this time,” he explains. With this new understanding, Charlie embraced what he calls his labor of love.
“Our mission is to reduce the cost and time needed to place a service dog with a veteran, child with special needs, or adult with disabilities,” he explains. Project 2 Heal accomplishes that goal by raising purpose-bred Labrador retriever puppies, which are ultimately donated to carefully selected service dog organizations.
Now in their 11th year, Project 2 Heal has lived up to Charlie’s vision. He reports nearly 75% of the non-profit’s pups become successful service dogs – a reality that enables Project 2 Heal’s partners to lower costs and reduce wait periods for a fully trained service dog. Taken together, Charlie says those benefits can save lives.
“For a veteran struggling with PTSD, a service dog can reduce night tremors, hypervigilance, outbursts of anger and cortisol levels,” he explains. “Those are the symptoms of PTSD that often contribute to a rate of 22 veterans per day taking their own lives.”
Volunteer Miriam Brown says Project 2 Heal puppies change lives when they become service dogs. That knowledge keeps her coming back, week after week, to clean the grounds, change the water and of course, play with the puppies. “Charlie says these dogs are special,” she states, “and they absolutely are.”
Service Dogs Alabama
Service Dogs Alabama (SDA) is the oldest and largest non-profit in Alabama serving both veterans and children with disabilities. Their services range from providing medical and psychiatric service dogs to children, adults, and veterans with disabilities, to offering facility intervention dogs for schools and courtrooms.
Since its inception in 2010, more than 80 highly trained canines have been placed with qualified individuals and facilities. The non-profit’s programs address a wide range of needs, from dogs who support veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to canines trained to help individuals with diabetes, seizure disorders or autism.
“We exist to find solutions to today’s most significant problems by training dogs to assist in tasks that change lives,” explains Frances McGowin, the group’s executive director and CEO. “These skilled dogs have a powerful effect on the independence, confidence, security, physical health and psychological stability of the individuals and groups that they serve.”
But it’s not just these clients who benefit. SDA partners with a local correctional facility for much of the dogs’ training. Through this program, inmates are paired with a dog and assume responsibility for its care and training. Frances says those who participate in the program gain valuable new life skills, from teamwork and compassion to increased self-control and anger management. Perhaps most importantly, they’re given a sense of purpose.
“Animals have the ability to reach individuals in ways people can’t,” explains Marty Turnage, a long-time volunteer with SDA. “The loyalty and trust that develops between an individual and an animal is unprecedented and pure.”
Paws Between Homes
Suddenly homeless, Henry was forced to take refuge in his car – but there was no place for his beloved dog, Boss. He worried he would be forced to surrender Boss to the local animal shelter, a heart-wrenching choice. Then he found Paws Between Homes (PBH), an Atlanta-based non-profit that finds loving foster families for pets like Boss, in need of temporary care.
Three months later, Henry was back on his feet, ready to welcome Boss back to his new home. Sarah Rosenberg, vice president and co-founder for PBH, witnessed their happy reunion. “Henry’s joy was palpable,” she recalls. “Boss was his family.”
In the short 18-month span that Paws Between Homes has been in operation, the non-profit has provided more than 80 animals with temporary homes and veterinary care while their humans worked to find stable housing. Without PBH, many of those families would have been permanently separated from their furry friends.
“The upheaval caused by an involuntary move is massive,” Sarah emphasizes. “When people get back on their feet in stable housing, they should be able to do so without leaving their pet family member behind.”
Ohlone Humane Society
Founded in 1983, Ohlone Humane Society (OHS) aims to care for all animals – from family pets to local wildlife. It’s not a shelter, but the volunteer group has a major impact on the communities it serves, offering assistance for struggling pet owners, organizing foster care for kittens, rehabilitating injured wildlife, and spreading joy (and education) through its therapy-animal programs.
“Helping animals and people in the community is hard work, but so very rewarding,” insists Natalia Lebedeva, who serves on the group’s Board of Directors. Through her work, and that of OHS’s many dedicated volunteers, the non-profit strives to better the lives of all animals with a full-circle approach to community animal welfare.
The group’s Meals-on-Wheels program distributes 200-250 pounds of pet food each week and OHS’s wide-ranging animal-assisted interventions bring activities, therapy, education and fun to schools, senior care facilities, hospitals and similar organizations. They even offer regular “Read-to-a-Dog” sessions at the local library.
“The dogs are such good listeners,” says Raj, the father of a once-struggling reader. “They never corrected our son’s pronunciation or point out mistakes.” Instead, Raj says the canines’ happy attitudes rubbed off on the whole family, reducing anxiety and helping to transform a reluctant student into a voracious reader.
But OHS isn’t just for domestic animals. Each year, the non-profit cares for more than 800 injured, orphaned and displaced urban wildlife at its Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Here trained volunteers nurse raccoons, rabbits, foxes, squirrels, birds, reptiles and more back to health. It’s just one more way OHS lives out its mission to advocate for all creatures, big and small.
Animal Rescue Rhode Island
Reeling after the loss her husband, and a short time later, her beloved dog, Katie found herself overwhelmed with grief. Then, she visited Animal Rescue Rhode Island (ARRI) and met Frida – a lovely, but scared, lab mix. Drawn to the timid canine, Katie welcomed Frida into her home. In the months since, Katie and Frida have provided solace, comfort and healing to each other.
“Katie’s family will never be the same, but it’s now complete in a different way,” says Liz Skrobisch, executive director for ARRI, a private shelter dedicated to rescuing companion animals. “Their story highlights why we go to any length to nurture and revitalize the animals in our care, in order for them to become successfully adopted pets in loving homes.”
With roots in the community that date back to 1938, ARRI has served as a haven for countless dogs, cats and other companion animals. The shelter takes in abandoned, abused and surrendered animals without geographic limitation. In addition, it follows a philosophy where no animal is ever euthanized because of time, space, breed or a humanely treatable condition. In 2020 alone, ARRI found forever homes for more than 600 pets.
“There’s nothing more rewarding at the end of the day than knowing that a pet was given a second, third, or fourth chance,” says Liz. “Watching the animals flourish under the care of our staff and trainers is gratifying beyond words.”
Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County
The Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, embraces a two-fold mission, helping animals and humans through adoptions and education. The open-admission, no-kill shelter is first and foremost a safe haven for animals in need, but it’s also much, much more.
For 6-year-old Ayla, HAWS is a peaceful place. It’s where she and her best friend Emma volunteered together. Sadly, Emma passed away, succumbing to brain cancer before her ninth birthday. But Ayla is still a regular visitor, carrying on their shared passion for animals.
For the animals who call HAWS home, it’s often a second chance at life. Each year, the team at HAWS assists more than 8,000 animals, most often finding them new, forever homes through adoption. Sometimes, however, what is needed is a brief respite while their families get their lives back on track.
That was the case for two large dogs who found their way to HAWS through the shelter’s Safe Keep program. Their pet parents had lost their home. Rather than relinquish their beloved family pets, HAWS provided free board for the Akita and Labrador dogs, keeping them for a month until the family found stable housing.
In addition to its four-legged friends, HAWS welcomes more than 35,000 visitors annually. Many participate in pet training and youth education programs, another priority for the organization. “We are dedicated to the education of humane values as a means of improving the lives of all the animals in our community, not just those within our walls,” says Lynn Olenik, executive director for HAWS.
The hours are long, but Lynn and her team share a common belief: “Anyone who has owned a pet knows the difference that the animal made in their life.” At HAWS, their mission is to return the favor.
Susan Jacobs-Meadows had a dream – creating a program that would bring unwanted dogs together with incarcerated men. Canine CellMates is the result, a non-profit that pairs canines rescued from local shelters with inmates at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail.
During the program, the dogs live in the jail, assigned to inmates who care for their charges, and teach them obedience skills. But it’s not just the pups that gain new skills; their handlers learn to set goals and work toward specific objectives. Along the way, they also experience the joy of unconditional love from their canine partners and the unyielding support of the volunteers with Canine CellMates.
“Graduating” from the Canine CellMates program is just the beginning. The non-profit works to place every newly trained dog in a loving, forever home. As for the men, the program includes an “aftercare” component, offering them support upon their release. “We tell them that we are their family for as long as they want us to be – to help, support, listen and be proud of them,” Susan explains.
Canine CellMates wouldn’t exist without Susan and her team of dedicated volunteers, but she insists the animals are the real heroes: “These dogs are catalyst for change.”
Furry Friends Foster and Rescue, Inc.
Gemma was found tied to a doorknob in an empty house. Her ears had been cut, her teeth filed down, and she had a tumor that had spread to her lymph nodes. As a senior pit bull with a tumor, Gemma had three strikes against her. But Furry Friends Foster and Rescue stepped up, arranging the medical attention she needed, then finding her a loving forever home.
Gemma’s story is just one of the hundreds of dogs rescued by Furry Friends. Since its founding in 2014, the Connecticut-based nonprofit has given hundreds of canines like Gemma a second chance. The group’s current president, Leslie Rich, explains that’s the organization’s mission: to help the dogs who need them the most.
“There are so many dogs in this world who, for lack of knowledge, money or humanity suffer unthinkable cruelty and harm,” she explains. “It’s emotionally taxing to care for these animals, but that toll is small compared to the joy that comes from watching them heal – both physically and emotionally – and learn to trust again.”
Every dog rescued by Furry Friends is assured top-notch medical care, and if needed, provided obedience training and behavioral assistance. They’re placed with volunteer foster families, where they receive the extra care they need to become happy, healthy dogs.
For Leslie and the volunteers who make Furry Friends possible, the rescue is truly a labor of love. “We’re all so very thankful that we are able to get up every morning and create the safety net that these dogs need so desperately,” she says. “We are rescuers; it’s in our hearts and souls.”
LifeLine Assistance Dogs
Ryan Cambio saw a need and filled it with his love of canine companions. As his story goes, while working as an apprentice dog trainer, he noticed certain populations of people were typically not able to qualify for service dogs based on the requirements other organizations had. He felt so strongly that the dogs he was training could help these niche, underserved populations–like First Responders with PTSD and medically complex kids under 14 with multiple disabilities–he decided to create LifeLine Assistance Dogs to serve their needs.
Since then, he and his staff have been custom-training dogs–mostly labs or lab mixes–for the specific needs of each client and their family. He says the sign of success they look for is when a dog starts ignoring their trainer and listens to their new family instead. He says that means “the dog is falling into the role they were destined for.”
Ryan says his dogs can be trained to assist people at work, home, and/or school, but the biggest benefit his clients seem to receive is the sense of calmness that comes over them and their families after getting their service dog. He says a dog’s non-judging presence is worth more than any specific task they can be trained to do.
SOUL Harbour Ranch
Sharing unconditional love. That’s the singular mission for SOUL Harbor Ranch, an idea that’s lived out in every visit, every therapy animal and every volunteer.
Since its beginnings in 2010, founder Jodie Diegel and her dedicated team of volunteers have traveled throughout the Chicago area, bringing four-legged comfort animals to hospitals, nursing homes, retirement communities, schools, homes for the disabled and more. With specially trained miniature horses and donkeys, as well as a number of much-loved dogs, SOUL Harbour’s animals lighten the day of all fortunate enough to encounter them.
“At every visit, our special animals spread joy, laughter and smiles,” Joy explains. Just watching the group’s miniature horses, clomp down the hall clad in custom-made tennis shoes is sure to bring a few giggles of delight to often somber hospital rooms. For a moment, she says, people forget their pain, and experience the healing powers of the human-animal bond.
Volunteer Anne Arroyo recalls one such encounter at a local medical center with a young girl, who was in isolation. Over the course of several months, Anne would stop outside the girl’s room with some of SOUL Harbour’s miniature horses, but she could only wave from her bed. Then finally, there came a visit when the child could pet the horses. “She had the biggest grin as she loved on two of our horses,” Anne says. “Her mom confided she hadn’t seen that smile in a long time, making the moment all the more special.”
For Jodie, it’s just one example among hundreds that illustrate the value of SOUL Harbour’s programs. “People connect with animals and our animals connect with people in a way that we can’t,” she says. “They are so healing for so many people, and we need more of that in the world today.”
Motivated by stories of pet owners faced with the choice of feeding their pet or themselves, Yvette Teipel jumped into action. In December 2019, the non-profit she helped co-found, Protecting Paws, launched a Community Pet Food Bank to help those struggling to care for their four-legged friends.
The timing proved fortuitous, as the COVID-19 pandemic soon pushed even more pet owners into financial uncertainty. Volunteer Jacqueline Colpean sees those struggles firsthand, as she delivers pet food to families in need. “Our clients are doing whatever it takes to feed their beloved pets,” she explains. “Knowing that their animals will continue to be fed is huge relief, and one less worry for them.”
For Yvette, the community pet food bank was a natural extension of Protecting Paws’ initial program, which focused on providing animal care and welfare presentations at local schools and libraries. It also fit clearly with the group’s mission: to help end animal abuse and neglect.
“The pets we help are stars in their family’s hearts,” Yvette adds. “I’m thrilled we’re able to help those that are voiceless and give peace of mind to their families.”
Demi’s Animal Rescue
Lots of teens love animals, but few go to the lengths that Demi Merritt did. As a 14-year-old, she founded Demi’s Animal Rescue (DAR), transforming her family’s basement into a no-kill animal shelter. Ten-years later, she’s extended the Denver non-profit’s reach well-beyond the family home, with a large network of fosters, donors and volunteers.
Demi’s mission – helping to solve pet homelessness through adoption, spay/neuter programs and pet retention – has never wavered. She and her team of volunteers work tirelessly to keep pets safe and loved. Sometimes, that means supporting pet owners in need of a helping hand.
Demi recalls one such client, a homeless woman who needed a safe home for her cat Geo, until she got back on her feet. The woman called regularly to check on Geo, and ultimately found a stable place to live. “I will never forget the warmth I felt by helping keep them together,” Demi recalls. “It was so clear that Geo was dearly loved.”
Pet retention is a priority for DAR, as a first line of defense to lower Colorado’s euthanization numbers. In addition to providing temporary housing, the non-profit offers coaching, assistance with pet supplies, behavior modification and training, and veterinary help. Of course, as a rescue, DAR also takes in animals in need of new homes.
“We don’t discriminate against any animal in need,” Demi emphasizes. “Once an animal reaches us, our tagline says it all: It only gets better from here.”
Four Paws and a Wake Up – NC
It’s the stories of regained independence and healing that keep volunteer trainer Caroline O’Brien returning to service dog provider Four Paws and a Wake Up – NC year after year.
There’s Zebulun, who retrieved her owner’s phone and towel when she fell in the shower, enabling her to call for help. Or Issachar, who learned to bring his partner water every morning so she could take her pain medication. When she was slow to rise, he would gently place her slippers on her chest, to offer a further nudge.
Sarai helped her veteran become more at ease in public settings, enabling him to manage anxiety and providing him added stability to prevent falls. Marcus assists his veteran with physical mobility issues and even learned to detect seizures before they happen, while Luke helps his wheelchair-bound owner manage doors, trash and much more – giving her the ability to live confidently on her own.
Pat Hairston, founder of Four Paws, has hundreds of similar stories, after all, she says: “This work is all about making a difference in someone else’s life.” At the same time, Four Paws gives its canine partners a second chance, too, as most of the non-profit’s service dogs come from shelters. These once discarded dogs get a new purpose in life, helping their partners live more independently and enjoy life.
Four Paws may be a relatively small program, but it has a meaningful effect on every life it touches. “Whether it’s a volunteer, a shelter worker, a rescued dog, the service dog recipient, or their caregiver, each small impact creates a bigger change,” Pat says.
ProMedica Hope and Recovery Pets
Hope and Recovery Pets has been doing incredible work for years in providing assistance to those with mental illness through pairing them with animals to love. HARP itself is a collaboration between the Toledo Humane Society and ProMedica, aimed at relieving the costs of pet care and adoption for those with mental illnesses that might be benefited by animal companionship.
Today the organization helps thousands of people and pets, by pairing them and covering all the costs of adoption, veterinary care, food, grooming, and other pet expenses. This has helped the cause blossom into not only a cause for good that provides joy and healing, but also into an invaluable source of medical data. After years of demonstrating positive outcomes from increased human-animal interaction, the world of mental health medicine has gained invaluable information about the social and psychological benefits of animal companionship.
What are the benefits of animal interaction? The major improvements come in the form of reducing anxiety, alleviating depression, providing self-care motivation, and other psychologically therapeutic outcomes. In fact, no current HARP patients have experienced a psychiatric hospitalization after adoption. As incredible as that is, it’s not the only breakthrough the program provides. There’s strong evidence that pet adoption also brings with it a long list of social benefits that aren’t always immediately apparent. Patients are less lonely, and have an easier time relating to others and making new friends, after adopting a pet.
HARP is changing both human and animal lives for the better. But the most inspiring thing of all might be what their results mean for the future. The better we understand the relationship between human-animal relationships and mental illness, the closer we’ll be to a world where mental illness means less stigma, and less suffering, than today.
AgriScience Biotechnology Academy
Where a passionate student intersects with a special opportunity, lives can change for the better. That’s the philosophy AgriScience & Veterinary Assistance Academy brings to their mission of inspiring and educating the world’s next generation of animal science and medicine professionals.
The organization works with high schoolers and veterinary professionals to coordinate learning opportunities for secondary-education students. All students are welcome–both who come from a more traditional background, and those facing challenges, be they in learning style, mental health, or family resources. And the learning experiences they’re provided aren’t busy work either–the students are immediately on-the-job learning to heal, groom, and help animals. All the while, the students are working toward their Veterinary Assistance Certification, so that when their time in the program ends, they’ll be ready to join the workforce right away.
AgriScience & Veterinary Assistance Academy is doing something incredible. Not only are they helping an upcoming generation of students find gainful, rewarding employment with a practical educational head-start in medicine and agri-science, but they’re also helping animals. By ensuring the next generation of veterinarians are well-stocked, motivated, and inspired, they ensure a brighter future of care for the animals that will inevitably need it.
One AgriScience & Veterinary Assistance Academy educator, Holly Hultgren, said it best, “When they get into that classroom it sparks something and that can change their entire life.” These educators are giving students access to more opportunities, while animals give them a sense of belonging. And that’s giving all of us a brighter future.
Operation Delta Dog
The numbers are staggering. According to Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, 100,000 service members in Massachusetts struggle with disabilities today. At the same time, 80,000 dogs end up in state shelters; nearly half will be euthanized. The founders of Operation Delta Dog saw those two desperate needs and realized they could tackle both problems at once.
“Our service dogs have been used to help treat depression, reduce stress and manage the panic attacks often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” says Charlotte Troddyn, development officer for the non-profit. “We find canine candidates from shelters and rescue groups, then train them for a new life filled with purpose and affection.”
Depending on the veteran’s need, Operation Delta Dog trains the canines to perform a variety of tasks, including providing stability for those with balance issues, offering comfort during night terrors, serving as a physical barrier in crowded spaces and providing comfort during anxiety attacks.
It’s a win-win operation. “The dogs get the loving homes they need, and the veterans get the support they deserve,” Charlotte emphasizes.
Home for Life
Diego was just two years old when he arrived at Home for Life, but he already had a reputation as unmanageable. TC, saddled with several infected teeth that made it nearly impossible for him to eat, was painfully thin. Dodi had been removed from three rescues and two homes in just 18 months. Euthanasia was the next stop for all three, until Home for Life stepped in.
“In the world of animal welfare, shelters offer two doors: adoption and euthanasia,” explains Lisa LaVerdiere, founder of the Wisconsin-based non-profit. “We’re the third door – a care-for-life sanctuary.”
As one of the country’s only such sanctuaries, Home for Life helps desperate animals whose needs exceed the capacity of traditional shelters and rescues. Some 200 cats and dogs live out their days at this unique facility, receiving the medical attention and the safe, loving environment they need.
In return, many of the animals give back to the community through the group’s innovative Peace Creatures pet therapy program. “The adults and children we help can identify with our animals – they’ve both been through so much,” Lisa contends. Through the program, Home for Life provide solace and joy to the lives of 8,000 at-risk kids and adults every year.
“Dogs and cats who fall outside the parameters of ‘adoptable’ are overlooked or disregarded,” Lisa continues. “But we’re reminded every day that these special cats and dogs are not pariahs or outcasts. They still have much to give.”
Can Do Canines
The concept of “love at first sight” is a cliché often reserved for fairy tales, not real life. But for Brea, a young girl with cerebral palsy, and Gregg, a hard-working yellow Labrador, nothing could be truer. Brea’s father, Cedar, still recalls the first time they set eyes on Gregg.
“We went to meet a couple of dogs and Gregg immediately began responding to Brea’s communication device giving commands,” he recalls. “He was completely engaged with her and she with him.”
Credit Can Do Canines for bringing them together. The New Hope, Minn.-based nonprofit pairs people with disabilities, including hearing loss, mobility needs, diabetes, seizure disorders and autism, with specially trained dogs. To date, the organization has placed more than 700 fully trained assistance dogs into the community.
The impact can be profound. Though Brea and Gregg have only been together a few months, Brea’s family see a difference in the way their daughter interacts with the world. “As their relationship grows, we expect Gregg will play an even bigger role in helping her be more self-sufficient,” Cedar says. Already, the eager dog picks up things Brea drops, opens and closes doors, activates handicap buttons, puts clothes in the hamper and more. But equally important, Cedar says, is the social component.
“A dog helps remove the stigma around the person it’s helping,” he explains. “People are more willing to talk to you when you have a dog.”
Can Do Canines Founder Al Peters concurs, adding that the program’s effects are far-reaching. “Our dogs fetch amazing things. They provide the gifts of freedom, independence, safety, security and peace of mind to our clients and their families,” he emphasizes. “The dogs cause such a ripple effect because we see clients empowered to go out and pay it forward in the world on their own. The benefits truly are boundless.”
Cheryl Kaletka started Fellinlove Farm for her daughters, who both have serious health issues. She wanted a place where they could learn about work and responsibility, practice socialization and just have fun. As she watched her daughters thrive, and as the Fellinlove Farm animal community grew, the Kaletka family decided to share their unique farm setting with others.
“Opening the farm to our volunteers and guests has allowed us to share the intense joy experienced from connecting with these amazing, diverse creatures,” Cheryl explains. Visitors have a chance to meet pigs, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, llamas, dogs, cats, bunnies and more.
Make no mistake, this is no ordinary petting zoo. Drawing on her experience as an early childhood special education professor and teacher, Cheryl created educational programs that allow guests of all ages and needs to enjoy the farm and its many animals. By far, the most popular is the farm’s adaptive field trip program.
In devising the program, Cheryl worked to make the farm and its many animals accessible to all. For those who struggle with anxiety in new environments, Fellinlove Farm offers an interactive virtual tour, enabling guests to see a “preview” before their planned visit. Wheelchair-friendly paths open the farm to guests with mobility issues. Plus, each adaptive field trip is tailored to the group’s unique needs, taking into account preferred learning styles, impairments, emotional and behavioral concerns, and more.
Cheryl’s commitment to inclusivity, aided by the farm’s 150 animal ambassadors, has made Fellinlove Farm a popular destination for school groups, families, and senior care facilities throughout western Michigan. “Through hands-on interactions with our gentle animals, we provide dynamic experiences for people of all ages and abilities,” she explains. “These intimate, individualized animal-human connections promote social, physical, mental and emotional benefits – and they’re a whole lot of fun, too.”
United Disabilities Services Service Dogs
A working dog can transform the life of a person in need, serving as the arms, legs, ears or eyes for someone. But as Lori Breece witnesses regularly, they don’t just open physical doors for the clients they serve.
“Our dogs can change a person’s life, empowering clients once afraid to leave their home with the confidence to go to the grocery store, get the mail or head out into the community on their own,” she explains. They also help combat loneliness and deliver other social benefits.
Lori serves as the manager for United Disabilities Services’ (UDS) Service Dog Program, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For 20 years, the program has been training service dogs, and more recently, facility dogs that work in school classrooms, counseling offices and similar environments.
UDS volunteer Colleen Pavlovec can attest to the impact these four-legged companions have. She serves as facility dog Duncan’s main handler. She’s also the principal at Leola Elementary School, where Duncan works with students that have special needs. “He picks out the students experiencing stress and calms them down, and helps those with stability issues find their balance,” she explains. “Our school has become a much better educational facility, just because Duncan is here.”
Lori says the key to the program’s success is making sure the right dog is placed with the right client. “When that happens, it just works and miracles can happen,” she maintains. “These dogs are helping people gain independence and live fuller lives.”
First Coast No More Homeless Pets
Before First Coast No More Homeless Pets entered the picture, dogs and cats who found themselves in a Jacksonville, Fla., animal shelter faced a bleak future. Of the 33,000 animals who walked through a shelter door in 2002, 23,000 were euthanized.
First Coast founder Rick DuCharme set out to change those sobering stats, cashing in his retirement savings to start what today is one of the nations’ largest spay/neuter facilities. First Coast also operates a low-cost veterinary clinic and a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital, in addition to other programs designed to keep pets in their loving homes and out of shelters. As a result of these efforts, Jacksonville shelter admissions have been cut in half, and last year, just 719 animals were euthanized.
Today, First Coast has a two-fold mission: supporting low-income pet owners, so they can keep their dogs and cats in their homes and out of shelters, and providing low-cost spay/neuter services, especially for feral and community cats.
“Many pet owners come to us after being turned away from other clinics because they couldn’t afford the care,” explains Mollie Malloy, director of grants for the Florida non-profit. “Because of our programs, these dogs and cats can thrive in their homes.”
Tails of Valor, Paws of Hope
It started with a simple conversation with a homeless veteran, recalls Heather Lloyd, executive director and founder of Tails of Valor. As they chatted, the Army vet shared how he had rescued a dog, which in turn, had become his best friend.
At the time, Heather was running a high-end kennel. The veteran’s story so moved her, she was inspired to start Tails of Valor, Paws of Hope, a non-profit program that trains rescued dogs to become service dogs for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and physical disabilities.
All the dogs, rescued from local animal shelters as puppies, are named in honor of military personnel who were killed during or after military service. As Heather explains, the program helps two lives – the rescued dog and the veteran.
The puppies typically are 8-10 weeks old when they’re rescued, and they undergo training that becomes specific to the veteran they’re paired with. It may include door opening, switching on lights, fetching items, bracing or nightmare intervention. Upon competition of their personalized training, the service dogs are given – at no cost – to veterans.
“Our mission is to provide holistic, non-medicinal rehabilitation therapies to improve veterans’ quality of life,” explains Jana Spess, the program administrator for Tails of Valor. “At the same time, we’re giving our rescued pups a chance at a really great life.”
Those Left Behind Foundation
Rae Erickson says it started with a single, heartbreaking conversation. A young woman entering hospice care was afraid her beloved cats would end up in a shelter.
It got Rae thinking: “What happens to the pets when their owners can no longer care for them?” From that seed, Rae eventually launched “Those Left Behind Foundation,” a Las Vegas-based nonprofit that has been helping pets – and their families – since 2010.
What started as program to provide loving homes to those “left-behind” pets, today encompasses so much more. The nonprofit offers programs to help low-income families with pet care expenses, provides pet care education, engages in community service activities through schools and local senior care facilities, and operates foster programs that retrain and rehome abused and abandoned pets. But it’s the foundation’s newest effort, dubbed Pups, Prisoners and Patriots, that hits closest to home for Rae.
After serving in the Air Force for six years, her son returned, crippled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She credits a service dog with helping him regain his life, and soon set to work developing a program to bring that same healing power to others.
“We take unwanted dogs from high-kill shelters and pair them with non-violent prisoners, who train the pups,” Rae explains. From there, the dogs are placed with veterans and begin their new career as service dogs and beloved family companions. “With each dog saved, the life of a prisoner and the life of a veteran are changed forever,” she emphasizes. “We’re not just rescuing dogs; we’re rescuing people too.”
Canine Partners of the Rockies
In Colorado alone, it’s estimated that more than 275,000 people live with disabilities. For this often-overlooked population, simple tasks like opening doors, picking up dropped objects, doing the laundry – even going outside – represent challenges that can seem insurmountable. Without a way to live more independently, those with disabilities can find themselves isolated from friends, family and everyday life.
Enter Canine Partners of the Rockies (CaPR). This non-profit group strives to create a world where highly trained dogs help individuals with mobility-limiting disabilities lead more fulfilling and independent lives. CaPR’s canines retrieve objects, pay at the checkout counter, assist with dressing, open and close doors, and turn lights on and off. All important tasks to be sure, but they do so much more.
Consider Jason, who as a teenager was in automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic. After the accident, Justin felt isolated and alone, since many people are hesitant to start up a conversation with someone in a wheelchair. That changed when CaPR paired Justin with Rocky. The black Lab was a huge help with daily tasks, but equally important, he served as an icebreaker and conversation starter when the duo was out in public. Rocky truly transformed Jason’s life, helping him gain independence and sparking increased social connections.
Animal House Project
The statistics are sobering. Every four seconds, a companion animal enters a U.S. shelter or rescue. That cold reality adds up to 7.8 million pets left looking for new homes, annually. Sadly, nearly half of those animals will be euthanized. MaryBeth Yannessa of Animal House Project (AHP) envisions a world where more owners can keep their pets at home and out of shelters. A big key, she says, is providing pet food and pet care services to families in financial straits.
“Poverty is the number one reason why most of our families feel the need to surrender their pets,” MaryBeth explains. But thanks to organizations like Animal House Project, help is available.
The non-profit group operates three pet food pantries in southeastern Pennsylvania, distributing more than 14,000 pounds of pet food each month to families in need. Some are senior citizens and retired military personnel living on fixed incomes, others are families reeling from job losses or layoffs. While the causes of their financial challenges are varied, all of Animal House Project’s clients live well below the poverty line.
Their stories are heart-wrenching. MaryBeth recalls one middle-aged single mother, struggling to care for three children and two German shepherds. “She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and found herself choosing between paying for an experimental medical treatment for herself or feeding her dogs,” Mary Beth explains. “She chose the dogs.” AHP stepped in to cover the dog food, enabling the woman to afford her clinical trial medications.
Cats and dogs are the big beneficiaries, but AHP distributes all kinds of feed. “On pantry days, we give out feed for horses, cats, birds, hamsters, chinchillas, rabbits, ferrets – you name it and we’re feeding it,” MaryBeth says with a smile. The organization also helps pet owners with low-cost spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations, pet supplies and wellness services.
“My fervent hope is that all pets can live in a loving, forever home with uncompromised care,” MaryBeth insists. By providing food and basic veterinary care, Animal Health Project makes that hope a reality for hundreds of clients each year.
Brackett Town Farms
Nichole Toney insists it all started when she and husband Chad inherited a bit of family property in North Carolina. A few chickens and a dog quickly followed. Then things snowballed.
“We all love animals,” she says with smile. “But the problem is we all love different animals.” At first, the family simply joked about starting a petting zoo, but as time went on the idea took hold. A visit to a petting farm in Ohio sealed the deal. Today, Brackett Town Farms serves as a free, therapeutic petting farm focused on helping those with special needs, grief and mental health issues.
“Animals have the amazing power to heal the heart and create a special connection,” Nichole explains. At Brackett Town Farms, those connections happen as visitors learn about the farm’s animals through educational, hands-on, small-group tours and summer volunteer work programs.
Caring for all the farm’s 80 animals means long hours, but Nichole wouldn’t have it any other way. “This is my calling,” she emphasizes. “I get to see children’s joy at learning about new animals and developmentally disabled adults laugh while they play fetch with our farm dog.”
Of course, the animals who call Brackett Town Farms home bask in all that attention, save for a grumpy hedgehog and a few alpacas. The pigs relish belly scratches, the goats compete for head pats and the miniature donkeys are always underfoot, trying to get a few cuddles, too. Little wonder that amidst all that love, Nicole has witnessed plenty of personal breakthroughs.
She recalls one developmentally disabled woman who found her voice at the farm. “She visited with each of the animals and had a wonderful time,” Nichole remembers. During her time at the farm, she even spoke several complete sentences – something her caregivers had been working on for nearly a year. It turns out, all she needed was few Brackett Town animals to serve as conversation partners.
Community Partnership for Pets, Inc.
Most people never step into a shelter. Most animals never step out. That stark reality is the impetus behind Community Partnership for Pets, Inc. (CPPI), a North Carolina-based organization that strives to reduce the number of cats and dogs that are euthanized in state’s shelters.
The non-profit group currently works with 11 of the state’s poorest counties, helping to establish and fund a variety of initiatives. Population control through spay and neuter programs are a focal point, but the non-profit also works to promote responsible pet ownership. As part of that commitment, CPPI teaches elementary students about proper pet care. In 2018 alone, CPPI brought its Pet Responsibility Class to 120 classrooms and 750 students.
Pitt County Animal Services is a key partner in this education effort, which aims to help children think about pets differently and build the next generation of animal advocates. The progressive animal shelter collaborates with CPPI on other programs too, including efforts to help low-income families provide for their four-legged friends. Through CPPI’s pet food pantry, families in financial crisis receive help with pet food and basic pet care, including spay/neuter surgeries.
“If you help people help their pets, it’s a win-win for everyone,” explains Michele Whaley, the director of the Pitt County shelter. “It takes the entire community to work together to provide care for these animals, but when we do that, we’re showing kindness and compassion to both people and the animals they love.”
Carolina Poodle Rescue
Jennifer Reel’s first encounter with Carolina Poodle Rescue (CPR) was a toy poodle name Greta, which she immediately adopted. But in the process of finding Greta, she also found a calling. In the ensuing 17 years, she has adopted and fostered more dogs than she can count and worked tirelessly for CPR. Today, she serves as the vice director of the limited entry, no-kill shelter.
Each year, the South Carolina-based shelter takes in 650-some poodles, poodle mixes and other small breed dogs. Since CPR’s inception, the organization has helped more than 7,000 dogs find their forever families. It also serves as a sanctuary for 80+ seniors, special needs and behaviorally challenged dogs.
Kingston is one of those long-term residents, a beautiful standard poodle with a bad attitude. “We don’t know what happened in Kingston’s past, but it left him deeply troubled and terribly untrusting,” Jennifer explains. For three years he has called Dreamweaver Farms, CPR’s main kennel building, home. There, Kingston enjoys a private indoor run, sleeps on a mattress covered in stuffed animals he collects, and has easy access to a large fenced in field right outside his door.
But it’s not just dogs like Kingston who benefit from CPR’s program. For families looking to welcome their first dog, heal a heart from a lost dog, or simply expand their pack, CPR offers loving companions. For families facing hard decisions, the group provides a safe place for beloved pets to land until a new home can be found. For shelters seeking to save lives and prevent euthanasia, CPR is a resource, especially for senior and special-needs dogs. And for breeders looking to humanely retire their dogs, Jennifer says CPR is ready to help with open arms.
“I tell people that I did not rescue my dogs – they rescued me,” Jennifer says. “The CPR family is full of families whose lives and homes have been completed with a rescue dog.”
Central Missouri Humane Society
Every companion animal – regardless of its age, breed, health or temperament – will find safe haven at Central Missouri Humane Society (CMHS). That simple tenant has guided the non-profit since it first opened in 1943.
It also results in some staggering statistics. Last year alone, more than 3,200 animals benefited from the shelter’s open-door policy. Finding homes for all those pets can be challenging, but Michelle Casey, who serves as the organization’s associate director, wouldn’t have it any other way. “We believe all animals deserve to be treated equally,” she explains.
Fortunately, thanks to the shelter’s dedicated network of foster homes and its proactive adoption program, CMHS never euthanizes animals due to lack of space. In 2018, CMHS placed more than 2,600 animals in loving homes, making it the largest pet adoption center in mid-Missouri. Dedicated foster families took in nearly 1,400 more. As a result of those efforts, no animal has a ‘time limit’ at CMHS.
“Animals are truly a gift from the universe, sent to help us make sense of a world that can at times be cruel and unforgiving,” Michelle maintains. “Our pets accept us despite our flaws and shortcomings. There are a great many lessons we can all learn from animals, if only we take the time to listen.”
Canines for Service
Because of Cyrus, Rob is finally at ease when he goes out to eat with his family. With Micah, Daniel sleeps seven hours a night, instead of two, allowing him to function better and spend more quality time with his young daughter. Because Sam is always by his side, Chris no longer needs a cane. With Forest, Shawn attended his son’s graduation and fulfilled his life-long dream to hike the Appalachian Trail. Gary is no longer concerned that a fall could leave him stuck on the floor, because Sarai is always there to help him up.
Those are just a few of the lives changed by Canines for Service, a North Carolina non-profit that pairs people with a disability with highly trained assistance dogs. Veterans are a special focus for the group, and many of the organization’s clients are disabled service members with mobility limitations, traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorders.
What sets Canines for Service apart from similar organizations is their commitment to only use dogs from shelters or rescues. “We rescue dogs that have been dumped, abandoned, found as strays or dropped off at kill shelters, often for reasons like ‘the dog had too much energy’ or ‘they aren’t a small puppy anymore,’” explains Colleen Vihlen, the organization’s interim executive director.
She recalls Dexter, who was surrendered to a rescue after his previous owner threatened to shoot him. Then there’s Lilah, who had 30 BB pellets scattered throughout her body, while Maddox was an hour away from euthanasia when Canines for Service gave him a second chance.
Each service dog learns specific commands to mitigate their veteran’s disability. According to Colleen, that training, coupled with the dog’s unwavering loyalty and companionship, can change a veteran’s outlook on life from hopelessness to optimism. “Dogs are remarkable beings,” she says. “They love unconditionally, and their understanding and capability is truly limitless.”
At Canines for Service, the once discarded dogs are given love, a second chance in life, and a new purpose. “They go from the shelter to someone’s hero,” Colleen concludes. “These dogs are truly saving people’s lives.”
Sam and Forest
Jessica knows that being a mother of a child who is on the autism spectrum comes with unique challenges, especially considering that no two children with autism will have the same challenges. Different things can be obstacles, and different things can help. For Jessica, it seemed like she had tried everything to help her son, Sam. After years of therapy and other programs that had varying degrees of success, she decided to apply for a service dog through Service Dogs of Virginia.
From the first night, she noticed the impact that Forest was going to have on Sam. He immediately knew that Sam was his to help. Now he puts his training to use to comfort Sam whenever he needs it. He defuses situations that would have previously been difficult for Jessica to deal with alone. And Sam has a new companion.
Learn more about the dogs at Service Dogs of Virginia.
Dylan and His PTSD Dog, Ren
As an explosive ordnance technician, Dylan disarmed explosives and weapons in some of the most dangerous places on the planet. That kind of stress can stay with you, and it can become something that drags at your life. As Dylan puts it, he was coming unglued. He sought help, and he found it in the forms of therapy and in a service dog named Ren.
Dylan and Ren are practically attached. Ren goes to work with him. Ren goes to therapy with him. Ren goes everywhere with him. Dylan knows that he could get by with the other therapy and supports he’s put in place for his life, but he also believes it wouldn’t be the same without Ren.
Before Ren, Dylan was surviving. Now he’s thriving.
Learn more about the dogs at Service Dogs of Virginia.
Service Dogs of Virginia
Service Dogs of Virginia operates out of Charlottesville, VA. They train dogs to act as a support and serve as a tool to assist in therapy for people living with PTSD, autism, and more. At any given time, they have volunteers and trainers working with puppies, adolescent dogs, and dogs who are close to placement. The trainers find that some dogs have personalities geared more toward work as PTSD or autism assistance dogs, and some toward work as assist or medic alert dogs.
But finding the right placement for the dogs is only one piece of the puzzle. The dogs also need to be placed with people who are ready for them. Staff, volunteers, and clients of Service Dogs of Virginia all stress the importance of putting yourself in the best possible position for a dog to make an impact before being paired up. The people who receive dogs, especially for things like PTSD and autism, put in hours of therapy and try to grow in other ways to make sure they’re in that position.
Together they form a beautiful relationship where the dog and the person both count on each other.
Learn more about the dogs at Service Dogs of Virginia.
Pawsitive Action Foundation
Pawisitive Action Foundation (PAF) breeds, raises and trains assistance dogs for veterans, first responders and children with varying disabilities. One of the organization’s newest initiatives focuses on youth with autism and other developmental disabilities.
The program, dubbed Pawsitive Abilities, was inspired by the impact a service dog named Belle had on the life of Logan, a young student with autism. With Belle at his side, Logan improved his social and communication skills, had greater focus and success in academic areas, and fewer meltdowns. Overwhelmed with the results, PAF launched a pilot program, pairing three teachers in the school district with puppies for their classroom. With support from PAF, the teachers serve as caregivers and trainers for the service dogs. As word of the program’s success has spread through the district, PAF reports even more teachers, administrators and parents have asked for educational assistance dogs in their schools and special needs classrooms.
Service Dogs for Veterans
Twenty veterans commit suicide every day. It’s a sobering statistic that speaks to the need for additional support that some veterans require. It was that realization that prompted Bill Brightman, a U.S. navy veteran, to launch Service Dogs for Veterans (SD4V) in 2014.
From its outset, SD4V has pioneered a unique approach to pairing dogs with veterans in need. Under the watchful eye of highly skilled professionals, the veterans learn to train their own service dog through an intensive seven-month program. Further, all the dogs-in-training come from local shelters and rescue organizations, giving these abandoned canines a second chance and a loving home.
“Our immersion training format gives vets a much-needed purpose,” insists Jim Voss, executive director for the non-profit. “Plus, the resulting deep bond of trust between handler and dog makes for an inseparable team.”
As part of the process, both veterans and their canine partners are inevitably transformed. “Typically, our clients have been under treatment by the Veteran’s Administration for years but have not seen the improvements needed to live a more normal life,” Voss explains. However, after participating in the SD4V training model, program participants report up to a 60 percent reduction in life-limiting symptoms along with a corresponding reduction in medications. As for the dogs, they gain new purpose as a loved and valued companion, helper, friend and family member.
Since the program launched, 16 companion dog teams and 48 ADA-compliant service dog teams have graduated from the program, with 22 additional teams currently in training. SD4V volunteer Mary-Ellen Gregory sums up the program’s importance like this: “The veterans that enter our program are broken shells, but with the help of their service dog, they leave here as confident individuals who have taken back their lives.”
Potsdam Humane Society
For the unwanted, discarded, homeless and hungry cats and dogs of New York’s St. Lawrence county, Potsdam Humane Society (PHS) is a beacon of life. Each year, the no-kill shelter delivers services and protection to more than 1,200 furry companions.
It’s a daunting task, but one Alysia Maynard, the organization’s executive director, fully embraces. “Growing up, I always wanted to work with animals,” she explains, but it might be her work with people that ultimately delivers the greatest impact.
From education programs in area schools to providing low-cost veterinary services (and a well-stocked pet food pantry), PHS serves as a valuable resource for pet owners. Still, Alysia worries about the growing need.
In 2017, PHS housed an average of 89 cats and kittens, and 24 dogs and puppies per month. While they averaged 480 feline and 240 canine adoptions annually, the shelter has a persistent waiting list for voluntary surrenders, and the number of days when it reaches maximum capacity continues to increase. Those realities make services like PHS’ low-cost spay and neutering all the more important, as a tool to combat pet overpopulation.
Despite the challenges, Alysia remains hopeful. “The compassionate, humane care PHS provides makes our community better,” she explains, “as the kindness we extend to animals will inevitability influence our lives in immeasurable ways.”
Freedom Service Dogs
Solar only had hours left before he was to be put down; the shelter he called home was simply out of space. But just as he was running out of time, a prison K-9 training program came to his rescue. After completing initial training at the prison, Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) acquired the young dog, hoping he’d be a fit for their service dog program.
Jon came to FSD hoping a service dog could help him maintain his independent life. Muscular dystrophy left him unable to walk, reliant on a power wheelchair for mobility. He needed help opening and closing doors, picking up items on the floor and similar activities. FSD brought Jon and Solar together, one more perfect match.
“My biggest hope was that a service dog could eliminate the need for asking people to help with things I can’t do,” Jon says. It was quickly apparent that Solar would do that and more. “I can rely on Solar to open heavy doors and pick up things I drop,” he explains. “But more than that, he is my devoted best friend, my constant companion, my lifeline and my infinite power source.”
Jon and Solar’s story is just one of many since FSD first opened its doors in 1987. Founded by PJ and Michael Roche, the non-profit’s mission is to unleash the potential of dogs by transforming them into custom-trained, life-changing assistance dogs for people in need.
“Our dogs truly change the lives of their clients, and impact everything from improved physical and mental health, to quality of life, community integration and independence,” explains Karen Moldovan, grants and foundation relations manager for FSD. “Navigating the world with a disability can be very challenging, but receiving a custom-trained service dog at no cost can literally and figuratively open so many doors.”
Unlike many service dog organizations, FSD relies exclusively on rescue dogs. In 2017 alone, FSD welcomed 198 dogs from shelters and rescue groups into its training center. Following comprehensive medical and behavioral evaluations, those dogs not deemed suitable for a career in service are adopted to loving, forever homes through FSD’s adoption program.
FSD relies on a dedicated team of volunteers to help care for the dogs on site, foster dogs on the weekends, and assist with training. Ann Pollock, a regular FSD helper, sums up the organization’s work like this: “At FSD, we take dogs who have been thrown away and give them a chance to shine as a well-trained pet, therapy canine or service dog.”
Taking it to the Streets
Lori Rich says it started with a simple question from her daughter, Shira. “Who helps the dogs living with the homeless?” she asked. Seven years later, the answer is clear: Lori and Shira.
The organization they founded, “Taking it to the Streets with Lori and Shira,” helps homeless and low-income veterans care for their pets, striving to spay or neuter, microchip and vaccinate as many of the four-legged companions as possible. Lori and her small team of volunteers also provide donated pet food and supplies, and help secure proper licenses for the street pets they encounter. To date, more than 1,000 cats and dogs in the Riverside, Calif., area have been spayed or neutered thanks to their determination.
“People don’t always realize it, but pet overpopulation is a huge issue,” Lori explains. According to the Humane Society of the United States, each year, 2.7 million adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized in the United States. It’s a staggering number, and part of what drives Lori to continue the work.
To accomplish her mission, the stay-at-home mom turned animal advocate heads out each day, sometimes logging up to 70 miles in search of homeless pets in need. “It may sound cliché, but I feel I’ve found my purpose,” Lori says. “I’m on the streets seven days a week, but this work fuels my spirit.”
While Shira, now graduated from college, no longer accompanies her mother on these daily journeys, Lori says she’s still a vital part of the non-profit. “After all, without her, Taking it to the Streets wouldn’t even exist,” Lori notes.
Thousands track the non-profit’s work through the organization’s Facebook page, where Lori documents her daily outings. The page is filled with heart-warming stories of the pets – and owners – she helps each day. “We don’t judge and we’re not trying to solve homelessness,” Lori emphasizes, noting that for too many, their pet is all they have. “We’re simply looking out for the health and welfare of the cats and dogs on the street.”
Paws & Hearts
For nearly two decades, Richard Waxman and his team of volunteers and their therapy dogs have been spreading joy to local hospitals, long-term care facilities and senior care centers. But the real credit, he says, belongs to his dog Lucky.
It’s been 19 years since the duo made their first visit to a local nursing. Lucky, though just a puppy, made a huge impact on the residents, sparking the local paper to write a human-interest story. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” Richard says with a laugh. While the spunky poodle-terrier mix has been gone for eight years, his legacy lives on. “Lucky is the true founder,” Richard insists. “If it weren’t for him, Paws & Hearts would have never happened.”
The non-profit has grown since those early days. Now, seven days a week, the organization’s 35 teams of volunteers and their four-legged “Canine Ambassadors” make the rounds to care facilities all over California’s Coachella Valley. Together, they work to fulfill Paws & Hearts mission, enriching the lives of frail and special care cases by spreading the unconditional love that only a furry healer can provide.
Richard says the benefits are clear. He’s seen animals motivate people to participate in their therapies, brighten patients’ days and spark conversations about the animals in their lives. He’s also found the visits can have long lasting effects, recalling a chance meeting with one such man, who remembered Richard and Lucky from hospital visits two years prior. “The gentleman said he’d been terribly ill, but when Lucky curled up on his chest, he couldn’t believe how much better he felt,” Richard explains. “He went on to say that he worked hard to get better, so he could see us the following week.”
It’s stories like those that keep Richard and all the volunteers at Paws & Hearts coming back each week. “We make thousands of bedside visits every year,” Richard says. “When we hear things like ‘you made my day’ or ‘I waited all week to see you,’ you know you’ve made a difference for the person you can to visit.”
Big Dogs Making a Big Impact
After many years training animals for film and television productions, Carlene White decided to use her considerable talents to transform Great Danes into service dogs for individuals with mobility challenges. Eighteen years later, the organization she founded – Service Dog Project (SDP) – has placed more than 160 specially trained Great Danes with veterans and other individuals in need of assistance, all free of charge.
“I’ve carved out the one thing that people need the most, help getting around and walking,” Charlene explains. While canes and walkers have their place, there are limitations. “If you’re walking with a cane, you’re bent over to get your center of gravity over the cane,” she points out. One wrong move could land the disabled individual on the ground. In contrast, she says holding the service dog’s harness handle provides greater support, without cumbersome equipment.
SDP is one of the few service dog organizations to use Great Danes. While it’s more common to see Labrador and golden retriever service dogs, Charlene insists Great Danes are ideal for balance support work. In addition to their sturdy size, the dogs have a friendly and patient demeanor, making them well suited for home and office life.
Each working service Dane changes lives for the better. As evidence, Carlene points to Bella and her service dog George. Bella has Morquio Syndrome, a rare metabolic disorder that makes it hard for her to walk. Before she had George to lean on, Bella relied on crutches and a wheelchair to get around. With George at her side, Bella’s strength and mobility have improved, as has her confidence and independence.
Being a mobility service dog like George requires extensive training, which SDP begins when the pups are just three weeks old. As they grow, the young dogs learn to be steady in harness, match their gait to their handler’s speed, and halt and brace if the handler should fall and require assistance to stand. Daily outings into the community teach the dogs to concentrate amid noisy children, enticing smells, taunting squirrels and whatever else they might encounter.
Intensive training aside, Charlene contends her Great Danes intuitively provide support beyond their puppy hood lessons. “These dogs really become tremendously observant of their person,” she explains. “They can sense when a person struggling with PTSD is getting anxious and needs some help. It’s not something we teach them, they just know what to do, and it makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives.”
Semper K9 Is on a Mission to Provide Service Dogs to Military Veterans in Need
Semper K9 Assistance Dogs trains rescued canines to aid military veterans struggling with physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues. Founded by Chris and Amanda Baity, the couple brings a unique perspective to what has become their life’s work.
Chris served in the Marine Corps through four combat deployments, running kennels and training dogs to detect weapons and explosives. However, each time he returned stateside, he found the transition back to family life was fraught with difficulties, especially as he struggled with PTSD, as well as drug and alcohol use. Upon leaving the military, Chris realized he could use his acumen for canine training to give his life greater purpose, help other veterans and give shelter dogs a second chance.
While many organizations provide service dogs for veterans, Amanda says Semper K9’s family-inclusive approach is unique. “As a military family ourselves, we felt it was important to include the entire family,” explains Amanda. “We view this as journey together.”
Toward that end, Amanda and Chris developed specific training programs for family members, to help ensure the service dog makes a smooth transition into the home. In addition to learning basic commands, their time at Semper K9 provides time and space for military families to reconnect. “Many veterans struggling with PTSD isolate themselves from their families,” Amanda explains. “We help bring them back together.”
Semper K9 rescues dogs from high-kill shelters and trains them to be service dogs – all at no cost to the veteran. Grants, like Nutrena’s Feed it Forward program, and a dedicated army of 120 volunteers, make it all possible. It can take up to 18 months to transform a rescue dog into a service animal. But the benefits to the veteran and his or her family make the work worthwhile. As Amanda explains, “We replace despair with hope, and you can see the change right before your eyes.”
These Assistance Dogs Have “Can Do” Attitudes
For Alan Peters, Can Do Canines is the fulfillment of a long-time dream to create mutually beneficial partnerships between people and specially trained dogs. Since he founded the program in 1987, the New Hope, MN-based non-profit has placed more than 600 assistance dogs – free of charge – with persons with disabilities.
“The impact is almost always a better attitude about life,” Alan explains. “People who once felt isolated or marginalized feel more engaged in the world when they enter each day with an assistance dog by their side.”
Alan recalls the program’s first pairing, Annie and Marcy. “Marcy was deaf and lived alone,” he recalls. “She was terrified at the sounds she was missing. She didn’t know when someone was at her door, or when someone tried to call her.” The fledgling organization matched Marcy with a little terrier mix named Annie, who had been slated for euthanasia at a local animal shelter. Annie learned to alert to sounds like smoke alarms, door knocks, alarm clocks and telephones. “It completely changed Marcy’s life, giving her greater independence and peace of mind,” Alan explains.
While Can Do Canine got its start providing hearing-assistance dogs, today the organization also provides service dogs to aid those with limited mobility, seizure disorders, type 1 diabetes and children with autism. Can Do Canine dogs learn all kinds of jobs, from opening doors to sensing when a person’s blood sugar is low. However, in addition to those tangible tasks, the dogs provide a valuable social connection. “Often, people with disabilities feel isolated from others, but with a service dog, the dog becomes the focus, not the disability,” Alan notes.
Critical to the non-profit’s success is its team of more than 900 volunteers, who do everything from fundraising to puppy raising. Two of those dedicated volunteers, Patrick and DeeDee Heffernan, have been fostering and raising puppies for Can Do Canines since 1992. “It started as a compromise, my wife wanted a dog – I, of course, didn’t,” Patrick recalls. However, it wasn’t long before their involvement in the organization blossomed, as they saw what a difference the dogs made. “We’re helping people have a better life where they can be more independent, and at the same time providing a really high quality of life for the dog too.”
Alan admits that not every dog has the right combination of intelligence, attitude and personality to become a service dog, but those who do seem to thrive at the chance to play such critical roles in their owners’ lives. “Our dogs love what they do,” he explains, “and it makes a world of difference to those with disabilities.”
Helping ‘Diamonds’ Find Their Forever Home
Passionate doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings Diamond In The Ruff Rescue (DITR) founders Bev Espenscheid and Lisa Tichy have for their organization. “We do this on our breaks, in the evenings, on the weekends, in the middle of the night when we get the 911 calls,” explains Bev. They both joke by saying, “We often wish we didn’t have day jobs, so we could do this all the time.”
Founded from an overwhelming gap in the community for an animal rescue service, DITR’s foster-based program aims to help animals find their forever home. This passion project is just that, a passion of Bev and Lisa’s. They rely solely on volunteers, donations and fundraisers, as there is no paid staff or brick and mortar facility. Their network of volunteers aid in rescues and foster animals as they transition to a permanent home.
One of their foster volunteers, Austin Gillis, recalls his journey to DITR, “I was in the Air Force for seven years active duty, and was medically discharged. I started doing a lot of different things, but was kind of struggling to find my sense of purpose,” he explains. “One very cold day, my wife and I looked out our window and saw two German Shepherds running in our yard. We started calling around to see if there was a rescue, and that is when we found DITR.” He continues by saying, “They were able to post it to their website, and a short time after, the owners contacted us with much gratitude. After that experience, I contacted DITR and asked if I could get involved.”
Along with the rescue portion of the organization, another great service provided is pet solutions for the elderly in the community. DITR aids in the rehoming transition of pets owned by elderly who are moving into a care facility. The organization also maintains an excellent relationship with the Animal Rescue League, helping them problem-solve difficult animals or facilitate foster animals.
“At the end of the day, the animals are getting a fair chance at a good life,” explains Bev. “They can’t speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them.”
The Dogs of Service Dogs Alabama
Service Dogs Alabama in Hope Hull, AL, finds dogs from local shelters and gives them a second chance at a meaningful life. They train dogs to assist students in schools, help with mobility, and alert for things like diabetes. They help everyone around them emotionally and physically, and the dogs become close friends with their handlers. The good they do is immeasurable, and that good all comes from former shelter dogs.
Popcorn and Her Kids
Popcorn is a service dog trained by the program at Service Dogs Alabama. She comes in every day for all of the students at Wetumpka Elementary School. Just having Popcorn in the classroom helps students cope with almost anything. To them, if Popcorn can handle something, so can they. She gives all of the kids added confidence, and she pays special attention to the ones who need her more.
Ian and Pierce
Ian is a seventeen-year-old living in Alabama with his mom and his dog Pierce. Ian has type one diabetes. It’s made life hard for him. He grew up never knowing when an emergency might happen, and according to him and his mom it’s more than just checking his blood sugar regularly. Problems can just pop up without warning. That’s why he has Pierce.
“It’s just fear. That would be my life without him.”
Pierce is a diabetic assist dog trained by the program at Service Dogs Alabama. He was rescued from a local shelter and trained to detect the scent of Ian’s blood sugar changes. He’s been with Ian for two years now, and Ian says it’s changed his life. He and his mom are grateful for the new found freedom.
“Having Pierce in our lives has allowed me to breathe a little easier, to rest a little easier.”
But for Ian, it’s so much more than the freedom to live his life. It’s just the freedom to live. Pierce is a friend to Ian. Ian thinks that the two of them couldn’t be more perfect for each other.
“There probably couldn’t have been a dog that could have been a better match. He seems to be one of the only living beings that can keep up with me — human or dog.”
It’s so amazing to see everything that Pierce has added to Ian’s life. Ian has a friend and a protector in Pierce. It’s truly humbling to see such an amazing animal, and it’s an honor to support an organization that trained him.
Emily and Tucker
Emily is a college senior in Alabama. She’s about to graduate, and she’s considering grad school. And soon, she’ll be marrying her fiancé. Those things didn’t come easily for her. She has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It’s a connective tissue disorder which affects her joints. On top of that, a few years ago she found out that she has epilepsy. She credits her ability to pursue her goals to her service dog, Tucker.
“I call him my fur angel.”
Tucker was originally trained for Emily’s mobility and stability issues brought on by her diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos. But after getting Tucker, he began to signal before Emily’s seizures.
“He started picking up on my seizures. And he wasn’t trained for that. Tucker taught himself, somehow, to detect them.”
Emily is so grateful for all of the amazing things Tucker has been able to do for her. She credits him with giving her a more normal college experience, and a more confident life experience. Tucker has been as big a part of Emily’s life as anyone else. He’s helped her accomplish some huge things.
“I don’t think I’d be graduating from college if I didn’t have Tucker in my life. I think I’d be stuck at home in my room if it wasn’t for him.”
As Emily looks forward to her upcoming graduation and marriage, she might imagine what her life will be like. One thing that’s sure is that Tucker will be nearby no matter what happens. More dogs like Tucker are coming out of Service Dogs Alabama every year, and it’s our privilege to help them bring more Tuckers to the world.
Captain, Mason, and the kids of Holtville Middle School
Holtville Middle School in Alabama is like any other middle school. Students come in every morning and learn things like English, math, and science. But Holtville has two furry additions to their faculty which most other middle schools don’t have. On the first day of school, students are greeted by Captain and Mason, two service dogs provided by the program at Service Dogs Alabama.
“On the first day of school they were so excited to see everybody. And they would just run around, back and forth, trying to greet everybody.”
-Clayton, student at Holtville Middle School
Captain and Mason have been with Holtville Middle School for about four years now. They were trained to help students who are having a hard time, and they’ll go from classroom to classroom to find students who they sense need some encouragement. They can sense stress, and they will do everything in their power to help with it.
“Children have tried to push them away, but they’re pretty adamant. And by the end of the class period, the dog has his head on your lap and the student is petting him.”
-Kelli, teacher and Mason’s handler
The dogs make their students feel more comfortable. Many of them have said they feel like they’re at home when Captain or Mason come into the room. The students are more at ease, and can concentrate on their work easier. It’s relaxing to see Captain and Mason. The two even make it easier for students to get through tests and their school work.
“You see the dog and you look at your paper and a second later — and you don’t know how — you’re done.”
-Chloe, student at Holtville Middle School
Captain and Mason don’t just make school work easier. They have big impacts on the mood of the classroom. The teachers who see them interact with students every day say that the dogs are able to calm the room. Just the fact that they’re in the building seems to make everything easier. And they’ve had big impacts in the lives of individual students.
“I’ve watched those dogs change children’s lives. That’s amazing in itself, to have an animal come in and literally change someone’s life.”
The connection that Captain and Mason have with the kids at Holtville Middle School is nothing short of incredible. They’ve been able to help so many students, and just by being there and being endlessly supportive. We’re happy to help Service Dogs Alabama train more dogs like them.
Jeremy and Daisy
Jeremy spent eight years as a combat medic in the Army, and from 2004-2005 he did a tour of duty in Iraq. He says he saw the best and the worst of humanity while he was there. Unfortunately, it’s the worst that he remembers the most. Those memories have made life hard for him since returning home.
“The first week back I had a nightmare, and after that I couldn’t get to sleep at all. I had to choose between staying up all night or having the bravery to go back to sleep because some of the stuff I saw over there will never leave me.”
Jeremy was desperate for some sort of relief. If not for himself, so he could be a good father to his daughter. He loves spending time with his little girl, but the things that stayed with him from Iraq made it hard to face day-to-day life. Those things made it hard to be there for her. Things were getting bad for Jeremy.
“I was contemplating suicide before I got Daisy. So getting her was a matter of life and death. I had already been through countless medications, countless doctors.”
Daisy was trained to sense when Jeremy is about to have a nightmare, and she can lick and nuzzle him to either wake him up or calm him down. Jeremy was skeptical. He didn’t think it would work. How was a dog, even a trained one, going to help him sleep when a doctor couldn’t? It was like flipping a switch on that first night.
“The first night I got Daisy, I was able to sleep without any kind of medication or anything like that. It was truly an amazing experience for me.”
Daisy quickly became more than a sleep aid, and more than a service dog. She became a member of Jeremy’s family. He credits her with keeping his life together, and with keeping him around. Daisy has helped him have a better life, and be there for his daughter.
“My relationship with Daisy has gotten stronger — I mean, yeah, it was strong in the beginning, don’t get me wrong. She really just became the glue of my little family.”
Jeremy is thankful for all that Daisy has given. He’s thankful for the peace she brings him at night. He’s happy that his daughter has been able to connect with Daisy, and that Daisy has helped him be there for his daughter. And despite all of these amazing things Daisy has done, Jeremy is happiest when she’s able to just be a dog.
“I like to take Daisy to the river after all the work she does for me, I get to let her loose and let her be free. Those are my favorite moments with her. She is not thinking about me, she is thinking about the water and herself. It’s beautiful to watch.”
It’s clear that she means so much to him. Daisy has given so much for Jeremy, and for his daughter. It’s a beautiful thing, and we’re happy to be a small part in supporting it. And Daisy is just happy to be there for her family.