Karen Shirk is the founder and executive director of 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization that places service dogs with people rejected from the big service dog agencies. These include children with special needs. When Shirk found out that no agency would place a dog with a child, she researched the Americans with Disabilities Act and could find no legal reason why having a service dog would not be possible if a parent served as a co-handler. In October 1998, 4 Paws for Ability was born. “People started calling from all over to ask, ‘Am I too young? Am I too old? Am I too disabled? Am I disabled enough?'” Shirk tells the New York Times Magazine. “I said, ‘If your life can be improved by a dog, and if you and your family can take good care of a dog, we’re going to give you a dog.'”
Shirk knows first hand what it is like to be rejected by the top service dog agencies. After she was given a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis, a rare autoimmune neuromuscular condition that required her to be on a ventilator, life seemed bleak. A nurse encouraged her to consider getting a dog to help with mobility. Shirk argued that she would not be able to take care of a dog; she could barely take care of herself. Still, she applied to service dog agencies around the country. Each program rejected her application, except for one. After two years of applying, Shirk managed to get a spot at the bottom of a waiting list. When a trainer came to her house to prepare for placement of a dog, Shirk began to believe that it could be possible. The trainer left and she soon received a letter from the agency: “Our guidelines prohibit the placement of service animals with people on ventilators.”
At that point, Shirk did not care whether she lived or died. Her same nurse insisted that she get out of bed and that they go get her a puppy. The nurse seemed to suspect this dog would jump-start her patient’s life again. The two of them drove to see a litter of black German shepherd puppies. That is how Shirk ended up with Ben, her faithful companion who even once saved her life. When Shirk went unconscious after an open-heart surgery and was later found to have been on a deadly combination of drugs, Ben answered a ringing phone and barked until Shirk’s father on the other end realized something was wrong and called 911. Through intensive training with Jeremy Dulebohn, who now oversees all the trainers at 4 Paws, Ben learned basic mobility work to help his owner. He can open and close doors–even the refrigerator. He can give Shirk’s wallet to a cashier and return with the change. He helps her balance when moving from wheelchair to bed and vice versa. Ben is completely devoted to Shirk, and has helped her gain confidence and strength, to the point where she began to wonder how many other people have experienced the rejection of being told they were too disabled to have a service dog.
Shirk decided to start her own agency and immediately heard from a couple who wanted a mobility dog for their 12-year-old daughter who had been paralyzed by a spinal stroke. Since 4 Paws began in 1998, the organization has placed more than 600 dogs with families. Most are golden or Labrador retrievers. There are dogs trained not only in mobility but to the specific needs of the children who will be their future companions. There are dogs trained in behavior disruption for children with autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or behavioral problems. Children with diabetes, seizures, or respiratory issues are given dogs who can alert parents to the onset of an episode, sometimes even up to 24 hours in advance. Children with autism who are prone to wandering have dogs that are also trained in tracking so that the children can be quickly found.
4 Paws for Ability has a ninety percent success rate with placing dogs with families. It costs $22,000 to train a 4 Paws dog, and there are 200 dogs in training at all times. Clients are asked to give $13,000 to the organization while grants and charitable donations make up the difference. Families travel to Xenia, Ohio, from all over the country to meet their dogs and stay for two weeks to learn how to work together. A strong bond usually forms between the children and their dogs. The dogs have also been trained to do tricks like “roll over,” “high five,” and “speak.”
“I learned with Ben that a dog helps you make friends,” Shirk tells the Times Magazine. “We place dogs with kids in wheelchairs, kids on ventilators, kids with autism, kids with dwarfism, kids with seizure disorder and cognitive impairments; but if your dog does tricks, other kids want to meet you. Kids will ignore your disability if you’ve got a cool dog.”
For more information about 4 Paws for Ability, visit their website.
Source: The New York Times Magazine