4 Paws was founded in 1998 by Karen Shirk after she tried unsuccessfully for years to obtain a service dog from traditional service dog agencies. At the time, Karen often used a ventilator to breathe and the agencies she applied to found her too disabled to receive a service dog. After obtaining her own dog and finding the training herself, Karen dreamed of a place where applicants for service dogs were not judged based on severity of disability and set out to start her own organization. Her dream became the large, thriving, respected nonprofit organization 4 Paws for Ability is today! You can read the complete story on the page The 4 Paws Story
We had humble beginnings with two dogs in a one-bedroom apartment in October of 1998. Initially Karen contracted trainers to do the actual service dog work. The first few years were slow and Karen worked with a small number of people needing dogs within her own community.
Within a few years it became evident to her that no one seemed to be training skilled service dogs with public access for young children. Most agencies would not work with kids at all or would give them companion dogs for use in the home. A few would place the dogs who flunked out of their adult programs with kids for use in the home. Karen felt a calling to work with these kids and with the help of the Internet and a newly formed website, she began to let people know she would help regardless of age. It was at that time that business began to boom and 4 Paws was growing at as much as 300% in a year’s time.
The first dogs offered to children were Mobility Assistance Dogs and Autism Assistance Dogs. Karen had worked in the field of Autism for years before her disability and knew the struggles of families dealing with this issue. In looking at the dogs being offered she noted that while the agencies offering companion dogs to children would often place dogs with kids who had Autism, no one was training a dog specifically referred to as an Autism Assistance Dog with a set of skills designed to aid the family . Ant thus the Autism Assistance Dog was created complete with safety features to give families back their lives and provide behavioral interventions to help the children with their daily interactions with others.
About three years after being founded, while always looking for that perfect trainer to take the organization to new heights, Karen came into contact with the trainer who had helped her when she was training her own service dog, Ben. Jeremy Dulebohn had been employed at National Canine at the time Ben was being trained and had left to pursue his own training business. He was excited to learn about 4 Paws for Ability and eager to become a part of this ever-growing agency. With Jeremy as Training Director, the quality of dogs trained improved dramatically, and the agency’s growth skyrocketed.
Several years after starting 4 Paws, the first facility was purchased in Xenia, Ohio. The facility consisted of a 100-year-old home with two large outbuildings that were quickly converted into kennels and a training room. 4 Paws thought that this would meet their needs for years to come, but quickly outgrew this facility within nine months and began to rent space outside the facility for training classes. It was clear they needed a larger building.
4 Paws was adding to the types of dogs trained daily and becoming known for their willingness to place dogs with children without a minimum age requirement. Hearing Ear Dogs and Multipurpose Assistance Dogs were now being trained. 4 Paws had the desire to not exclude any child because a disability did not fit in a box, and would look at each child for whom they were and see what was needed and how a service dog could help.
When the VFW building only 2 doors down from 4 Paws became available, we saw this as a sign and quickly arranged to purchase the 6000 square foot building with 2 acres of land behind it. This continues to be the facility 4 Paws operates out of to this day. However, as usual 4 Paws continues to grow at a rapid rate as more and more families hear of our services. Plans are in the works to expand the building by more than doubling its current size.
In 2006, 4 Paws began to notice that some of our dogs placed with children who have seizures began to alert to the seizures even before any visible signs were noted. Training Director, Jeremy Dulebohn, looked at this type of service dog, and drawing upon his 20 years of training dogs and vast knowledge of dog behavior, developed a means of training the dogs to actually alert to the seizure before the outward signs are visible.
Today we have a 90% success rate in the placement of service dogs to alert seizures when they occur with most minutes to hours beforehand. While many still believe it is not possible to train seizure alert, 4 Paws has successfully created a program of training which does indeed prove that through the success of our placements, alert can be trained!
In 2010 after seeing a documentary that followed three veterans of the current wars on terror who had lost limbs when hit by bombs, Karen came to the board with a desire to help. Though our focus continues to be on children, 4 Paws began to place some Veterans Assistance Dogs in 2011. Though this is a smaller program within the organization, it remains one we are passionate about and proud to offer to those veterans who have lost some of their own independence fighting for the independence of others.
Today, placing approximately 100 dogs a year, 4 Paws For Ability is the largest organization whose primary mission is to place service dogs with children and one of the only organizations to have no minimum age requirements. We place almost every type of service dog available and never turn down a child who does not “fit” into one of the traditional service dog categories. Our Multipurpose Assistance Dog is a dog that encompasses all those children who do not fit into the traditional service dog types and/or who have disabilities that fit into more than one type of dog trained.