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Special Place Trains Service Dogs for Kids

By Diane Herbst

Photo credit: 4 Paws for Ability Facebook page

click image to enlarge

At a unique facility in Xenia, Ohio, live some 200 golden retrievers and labs, where they are trained as service dogs for children.


“It turned out the largest group of people being turned away from having a service dog were children,” says 4 Paws For Ability founder Karen Shirk.


Shirk started 4 Paws For Ability in 1998, after she developed Myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder. She had tried unsuccessfully for years to obtain a service dog, but was turned down because she had required a ventilator to breathe.


“I had difficulty getting a service dog and I wanted a more inclusive agency,” says Shirk.


With five full-time trainers, the dogs are trained to turn on lights, open doors, and alert parents if their child is having a seizure. Some of the dogs are also trained in their early stages by prisoners.


Photo credit: 4 Paws for Ability Facebook page

click image to enlarge

Many of the children receiving a dog have autism, Down Syndrome or disabilities that create safety issues.


“The dogs help the children find their independence earlier, their self esteem,” says Shirk. “Children look at other kids and think they are different. The dog acts as a social bridge, and draws kids to them.”


The puppies are born at the Xenia facility and begin their training after a few months. 4 Paws For Ability places about 100 dogs a year, and have placed over 650 pups in 48 states as well as around the world. About 80 percent of the dogs end up as service dogs, the rest are adopted, says Shirk.


“I feel I am lucky, because I don’t feel that what I do is a job,” says Shirk. “It’s a major part of my life and I enjoy it.”


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