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Highly Trained Service Dogs Have PAW-sitive effect on the Elderly, Children, Veterans & Inmates

By Paul Lonardo

Paws4People foundation is a non-profit organization that trains and places Assistance Dogs with people as a way to help them mitigate symptoms sets for a variety of different disabilities. It was started in 1999 by Kyria Henry, when she was just twelve years old. Living with her family in northern Virginia at the time, Kyria wanted to help people in need, so she started taking Dogs to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The joy that the Golden Retrievers brought to the people was immediate, and the results inspired Kyria to pursue the enterprise further. She began taking the animals into schools and hospitals, and things quickly progressed more than she could have imagined.

Paws4Vets, which has provided some of the world’s most highly trained Assistance Dogs to wounded veterans since 2008, was a natural offshoot of Paws4People. Kyria’s father, Terry Henry, is a veteran, and the young girl saw how just having the Golden Retrievers in the house was a major help alleviating the symptoms of her father’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So not only are these special dogs supporting needy individuals in areas such as mobility and psychiatric service, educational and rehabilitative assistance, as well as therapeutic visitation, they were also being used to help veterans, military dependents and active duty military cope with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, physical or neurological injuries, Dissociative Amnesia, and other psychological diagnoses. While the company remains a small family business with only twelve full and part-time employees, the outreach of the company that Kyria founded nearly twenty years ago continues to grow.

“We place dogs nationwide,” says Sam Cleary, Program Manager, Public Awareness for Paws4People. “Right now we have dogs placed in twenty-six states, primarily on the east coast since we are located in Wilmington (North Carolina). But we do have dogs as far out as Washington State, Colorado, Texas, and Nebraska.”

So far, the company has placed 700 fully certified Assistance Dogs, either as a one-on-one basis for a singular client, or facility dogs that work in schools, hospitals and retirement homes, as well as many other kinds of facilities, including doctors’ offices and courthouses. Paws4People can train and place a dog anywhere that one is needed.

Cleary says they breed and train Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, mainly because of their temperament. “They’re highly trainable. They’re working Dogs. They’re very smart and are eager to please and help people.”

Paws4Vets breeds all of their own Dogs. They are born and raised in Wilmington, where the organization is headquartered. Cleary says the Dogs start out living in a Puppy Development Center, and all of the training is done by interns, caregivers and volunteers until the puppies are twenty weeks old. At that point they are taken to West Virginia, where they undergo further training in a rather unique setting.

“There are five state correction facilities throughout West Virginia where inmates train all of our Dogs on all of their command sets, including basic obedience and their disability tasks,” Cleary says.

Kyria, who graduated from West Virginia University, approached one correction facility in the state to inquire about establishing a training program for the dogs, and the idea was well-received by the warden. A program was established, and when wardens from other facilities saw the good it did for the inmates as well as the people that the dogs served, they reached out to Kyria to learn more and find out how they, too, could become involved, creating the Paws4Prisons program. This program is twelve years old now, and is currently in five West Virginia State Correctional Facilities. The program is very popular among the inmates, having a positive and impactful effect on them. However, participation is a privilege that must be earned. An inmate who wants to be a part of the Paws4Prisons program must go through a certification process of sorts, attending classes, lectures and video conferences with paws4people trainers.

Cleary says, “The inmates have to write a number of papers to ensure they have sufficient knowledge and understanding. There is a minimum requirement of work that has to be met before an inmate can even start to work with one of our Service Dogs.”

Once the Dogs have completed the Paws4Prisons Training Program they return to Wilmington, where undergraduate students from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington work with the animals, preparing them to go home with clients.

“All of our UNCW students that are part of our program get school credit and volunteer hours for the training they provide the Dogs,” says Cleary, who herself was one of the UNCW students that went through Kyria’s classes and had the opportunity to train the Dogs.

Paws4People is a 501(c)(3) public charity, placing 50-60 dogs per year, with each trained dog having a value of about $60,000. Generous sponsors and donors, both individuals and corporations, help Paws4People continue to do the good work that it does.

To find out how to volunteer, donate your time or money, or learn more about what paws4people can do for you or someone you know, feel free to contact the organization, paws4people.org or Sam Cleary sam.cleary@paws4people.org