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.”
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.