May 8, 2014— This interview with our founder, Karen Shirk, ran in the “Ideas and Voices” section of the Dayton Daily News, the major newspaper serving the metropolitan region which includes 4 Paws home of Xenia, Ohio.
We recently learned of a local service that helps people in an unusual way — by putting service dogs in homes that need them. Karen Shirk is the founder, CEO and executive director of 4 Paws For Ability, located at 235 Dayton Ave. in Xenia. We caught up with her recently right before she headed to Germany to obtain several more dogs to train. To learn more, visit 4pawsforability.org. Here’s our conversation. — Ron Rollins
Q: Describe the organization and its mission.
A: We’re a nonprofit organization that trains and places service dogs for disabled children and veterans. I founded it in 1998.
Q: Where did you get the idea that there was a need for a service like yours?
A: I was trying to get a service dog for myself, and everyplace I went wouldn’t give me one because they thought I was too disabled — I use a ventilator to breathe — and so I had to get my own dog and train it myself. I went as far as I could on my own, then I got help from National Canine in Columbus. I realized that I wanted to work with groups that were underserved — and that turned out to be children. At the time, nobody was placing service dogs with children, so it worked out.
Q: What do service dogs do for their people?
A: There are so many types of them. We train dogs to work with autistic children, to help with the safety issues associated with autism. We do the same for children with Down syndrome or similar disorders. We also work with hearing-impaired children, to let the dogs be alert to the sounds in their environment. We train dogs for young children who are blind, for children in wheelchairs — to help them with things like picking up things they’ve dropped, or opening doors. We also train alert dogs that are alert to children with seizures, or high and low blood sugar for diabetes kids, or for food allergies.
Q: So for example, what does a service dog do for a child who is prone to seizures?
A: It alerts the parents that a seizure is going to occur so the parents can do what they need to do.
Q: How long does it take to train the dogs?
A: It takes about a year to train and place a service dog, and over 500 hours of training is devoted to each dog. We have five trainers, five training assistants and a training director.
Q: Can any dog be trained for this sort of service?
A: Not all. I think any dog is trainable, of course, but not all are suited for service. For instance, dogs who are bred for protection, or to hunt, or to move herds and stuff — they’re too protective. The dogs that make good service dogs are the ones that you’ll see online as considered the most trainable — happy, fun-loving dogs like labs, golden retrievers. They have to have that personality and temperament to work in public.
Q: How many dogs are you managing at one time?
A: We own about 300 dogs, from newborns to ready-to-graduate adult service dogs. They live in various places — some in our facility, some in prisons, homes, college campuses and fosters homes.
A: We have a program where the puppies go to live with the inmates, who housebreak them and teach them basic obedience before we train them. It’s good for the inmates and for the dogs.
Q: How many dogs have you placed over 15 years?
A: More than 800. We have an arrangement we call provisional ownership, where the family we place the dog with owns it as long as they take good care of the dog. If they breach the contract, we take the dog back. We check up on them — the first year, we check in at one, three, six, nine and 12 months, and then yearly after that. It generally works out well, too — we’ve only had a few times when dogs were returned. The families need to maintain the training for the dogs, and they come here to our facility for two weeks to learn how to use the dogs properly.
Q: Describe your facility in Xenia.
A: Well, it’s big — but not big enough, so we’re getting ready to expand. There’s a place for the dogs to stay, a play area for children, a training area for the families. We have a full-time veterinarian here, too. We’re breaking ground this year on the expansion — we will triple the size of the building. We raised the first $500,000 we needed during a campaign so that we can get a loan that we’ll pay off in five years. If people are curious about what we do, they’re invited to come drop by and visit us any time.
Q: What’s the most gratifying part of the job?
A: Seeing the kids get their dogs. That first day when they meet their dogs, that’s the day we all live for.
Q: Do you still have the first dog you trained yourself, years ago?
A: Unfortunately not. Dogs do, sadly, have a limited lifespan. Mine lived to be eight. Now I have a service dog named Piper — a papillon, who helps me with medical alerts. She alerts me if I’m about to have respiratory failure, so that I can medicate. She knows ahead of time if it’s going to happen. I don’t know how she knows.
Q: That’s interesting — talk about the bond between people and dogs.
A: I usually just say it’s magic. I’m not sure anybody really understands it. There are lots of things dogs know that people don’t know how they know. With seizure work, for instance, they can smell different changes in body chemistry that occur before the episode. Same with sugar highs and lows in diabetics. They’re very intuitive in ways we don’t understand. Like with veterans who have PTSD — you can’t train a dog to understand that, but they are very tuned to our emotions, and can tell when the person is starting to get worked up, so they can deal with it. Who knows how they do it? I say they’re on a higher spiritual plane than we are. It’s just magic.