XENIA, Ohio - "Good boy!" Two words that were repeatedly overheard throughout 4 Paws for Ability training center.
"Good" is right. Wednesday's group of trained pooches, with nearly 600 hours of training under their collar, will graduate Feb. 24. That group includes Noble who, during training, jumped up, pushed both paws against a wooden door, turned the knob, and opened it on command.
He is a service dog, just like the dog that 5-year-old Samuel DeWitt is finally due to receive next March.
Back in June, the DeWitts, who live in Mt. Orab, raised money for a service dog through Animals for Autism. They sent money... but no dog for their autistic son was ever received. In fact, the organization seemed to have disappeared off the map. No returned emails or phone calls and no new photos of his dog Shadow were ever sent to them from the organization ran by Lea Kaydus in Illinois.
That's when Karen Shirk, executive director and founder of 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, stepped in with a helping paw, four of them to be exact.
"We felt that this family had been through enough," said Shirk.
Her non-profit organization decided to donate a $22,000 service dog to Samuel.
"It's going to give Samuel opportunities to really have normal functioning and give him a better daily life," said David DeWitt, who was grateful for the outpouring of support for his son and his family.
"It was just such an amazing act of kindness," he said.
Samuel was pretty excited too.
"We had sat down and actually had talked with him a little bit that Samuel, you are gonna get a dog. And we weren't quite sure it really even sunk in at first, but about three or four minutes later, Samuel was just running around the house going 'Oh man! Oh man! Oh man!" said Elizabeth DeWitt of her son's reaction.
That excitement stemmed from a need for safety said Shirk.
"Samuel doesn't understand some of the dangers. He has no fear of like bodies of water or cars or even strangers. Samuel doesn't think anything about walking up to a stranger. And so, the dog will help, number one, to keep Samuel from wandering away from us; will help keep Samuel with us; will alert us," said Elizabeth.
Families who struggle with autism, need stability and they need a dog that is also trained as a search and rescue dog.
"A true story that one of our families, their child got out and they were able to find him within five minutes," said Shirk.
What makes the story incredible, she said, was that he walked out of the family's home at 10 p.m. It was 20 degrees and the child was in a heavily wooded area, naked.
"Had they not found that child quickly, the results would've not been happy. It would not have been the happy ending that it was."
Shirk, who has a nerve disorder started 4 Paws for Ability in 1998 after being turned down for a service dog herself. She was wheelchair dependent and vent-dependent.
"All of the agencies turned me down because they felt that I was too disabled."
They told her that she would not be productive and therefore did not qualify for a service dog.
Eventually she adopted Ben, her service dog, who she had trained privately.
"The bond between a human and their service dog is incredible. There's nothing that I know of that's more powerful," said Shirk. And she should know. Ben saved her life.
Recovering from open-heart surgery, she said that she fell unconscious from an accidental and deadly mixture of medicine.
That's when her dad called to check on her. She didn't answer.
"Ben who usually would wait for me to tell him to bring me the phone, probably waited for a few rings and then picked up the phone and dropped it—they said it was in my lap when the paramedics arrived— and he barked and barked and was still barking when the police arrived."
She said, that's when the thought occurred to her about how many disabled people were being turned down for service dogs like she was. From that thought, 4 Paws was born. And that idea quickly outgrew her one-bedroom apartment, as she expanded from training two dogs to training 100 every year.
"I found out that the largest group of people being turned down was children, and from there it just went," said Shirk.
To date 600 service dogs have been placed with disabled children and adults, whether they are deaf, wheelchair bound, diabetic, have seizures or autistic. They also train dogs for FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) and veterans. Dogs range from Golden Retrievers to golden Labradors, Collies, Border Collies and Papillons—a smaller dog for specific purposes like seizures.
Puppies are trained just after being born at universities like Wittenburg University, Wright State University and the University of Kentucky, as well as at nearby prisons. Families can foster puppies in their homes as well, where they are socialized and given obedience training for 6 weeks. Then it's back to 4 Paws for more focused and specialized training at 9 months old until they are ready for service.
After Samuel's dog, who has not yet been determined, is trained over the next year, it will go home with him—at no cost to his family. It's added peace of mind not only financially but also emotionally, knowing Samuel will be taken care of by a furry companion.
"When Samuel gets upset, to nudge him and to lick him and to cuddle with him to lay across his lap to provide that pressure to just calm him down," said Elizabeth about her son who she said sometimes has sensory overload.
On the floor, Samuel stroked Coda's fur while he sat in his mom's lap. Coda is one of the trainer's dogs, who has gone through multiple training sessions as a service dog—training that could save lives like Samuel.
Shirks knows from experience that service dogs save lives, giving herself and clients great new beginnings and very happy endings.
"Wonderful happy endings. Some of it, you know, we can explain and some of it, just magic."
Shirk said that 4 Paws for Ability is expanding at existing facility to better handle the demand and need for service dogs nationwide.
The organization runs 100 percent on donations and spends about $17,000 a month in training and $8,000 a month for food for their 200 dogs. They operate on a $1 million budget, said Shirk.