Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Saving a Life to Change a Life

"Life changes when your child's doctor tells you your daughter won't walk, or use her right hand and will always need assistance for daily tasks. You begin a journey to find ways to allow your child to live as independently and normal as possible. You learn that there are barriers that you hadn't anticipated and become passionate to find solutions to remove as many obstacles as possible. PAWS Giving Independence has given our family hope for our daughter's future independence.
Since Naomi can't use her right hand, a simple task like removing her coat becomes possible with the help of Sasha, her service dog. Holding a door open to let her wheelchair pass through is also a task that Sasha is training to do for Naomi. Picking up dropped items like a cell phone, remote control, wallet or keys is probably our most used task for Sasha. The assistance is empowering for Naomi because she isn't always calling upon other people or feeling as though she is interrupting the activities of others to come to her rescue. Above all, Sasha has bridged a social gap between Naomi and non disabled people in the community and in social settings. Everywhere Naomi goes with Sasha, people are drawn to make conversation.
I didn't realize how substantial the social barrier was for our daughter until she recently started beaming about how popular she feels when Sasha is with her."


The Bradley Physical Therapy Department was instrumental in helping three Bradley students start a non-profit organization in September 2008. Michelle Kosner, Brandi Arnold and Eric Swanson came to the physical therapy department looking for help to build the philanthropic association known as Paws Giving Independence. Paws Giving Independence rescues dogs from animal shelters, trains them to become service dogs for children and adults with disabilities, and places them free of charge to the families. Their motto is "Saving a Life to Change a Life".

The purpose of PGI is to train service dogs to physically assist people with various disabilities. Dogs complete simple tasks for their owners such as picking up dropped items, turning on lights or opening a door. These tasks would be difficult or impossible for these individuals without assistance. PGI's ultimate goal is to provide support to encourage independence for the dogs' owners. In addition, the dogs can help to bridge a social gap between those with a disability and those without, providing a small connection between the disabled and non disabled communities.

When Amy, a 24 year old woman with quadriplegia, received a dog, she commented that prior to this people would first see her wheelchair and now they see her dog. She notes people are always stopping to talk with her about her companion and to ask questions. She states she felt as though no one ever acknowledged or engaged her in public before this.

Obtaining a Service Dog
Similar organizations may charge between $10,000 and $15,000 per dog. However, PGI is different because it places its dogs free of charge. PGI's service dogs benefit individuals with spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, balance problems, and more.
PGI offers two types of dogs: service dogs and companion dogs. Service dogs have been specially trained to assist a disabled person with certain daily tasks such as picking up an object from the floor. The service dog has access into all public settings. In-home companion dogs are given to children who may suffer from anxiety or depression or someone with autism or Down's syndrome. The dogs give a sense of constant companionship. However companion dogs are not certified to work in a public setting.

Since trained dogs are given to their owners free of charge, PGI is run exclusively from donations and endowments. Each dog has various expenses such as adoption fees, vaccinations, medications for heartworm, grooming, vests and patches, leashes, collars, insurance, and food. PGI is a 501 (C) (3) corporation and all donations are tax deductible.
Training Process
Most dogs come to PGI as rescues from local shelters. PGI contacts the shelters to see if they have any dogs that would potentially make good service dogs. The rescued dogs are then placed in a foster home for six months to one year before they are formally placed with an individual. During this time, foster families are required to attend class once a week with their foster dog to teach the dog basic obedience commands it will need to later assist someone with a disability. New skills are practiced during class and are to be reinforced and practiced in the foster home. Foster families must also commit to training them on how to behave in a home. Once the dog passes the public access test, the family will then be given permission to take the animal in restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and more to complete the final training process.
By the end of the training process, dogs are able to open/close a door, turn on/off a light, carry a backpack, pick up a dropped item, brace for transfers, retrieve a telephone, pull a wheelchair, assist with dressing/undressing, and ultimately provide independence and support.

Other Information

You can learn more about Paws Giving Independence NFP or donate at their website: http://givingindependence.org/

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Written by:
Michelle Kosner, Founder, Paws Giving Independence and 1st Year DPT Student
Victoria Gestner, Senior student, PR, Bradley University

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