Just east of I-65 South at the Hope Hull exit lies not only a beautiful parcel of land, but also an incredible non-profit of which too few in the River Region are even aware. It’s a non-profit that is daily changing lives by utilizing the innate abilities of one of God’s most loyal creatures – dogs.
But these dogs aren’t your typical family pets, and while you may believe your four-legged best friend is the absolute smartest in the world, a visit to the facility to witness the life-changing results of individuals who are served by these dogs will definitely challenge your assessment – and forever change your understanding regarding the impact of a service dog on someone’s life.
Aptly described as “Alabama’s best-kept secret” by Executive Director Frances McGowin, Service Dogs Alabama (SDA) first operated in 2010 along with Co-Founder/Training Director Ashley Taylor as the “K-9s 4 Kids” service dog training program under the umbrella of Easter Seals of Alabama before becoming an independent non-profit organization in 2015. Since that incorporation, 85 working dogs have been placed in service in various locations across Alabama to aid veterans as well as children in homes and schools. SDA is a fully-accredited member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) that provides the gold standard for training and placement of service dogs. SDA also adheres to strict public access testing and multiple task certification to ensure each dog is ready for placement.
As classified by the American Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is specifically trained to assist someone with a medical or psychological disability, and are also trained to perform two or more tasks specific to the person’s disability, but are not considered a comfort care dog.
But that sterile definition of a service dog can never describe the life-changing effect of these dogs on the lives of those they serve, and it’s not hyperbole when hearing the testimonies connected to each dog. Whether shared during the “graduation” ceremony for those dogs who successfully complete training or in video testimony from families, the value of these dogs in assisting their owners navigate life’s challenges made far more difficult due to disability is immeasurable.
You won’t understand the enormous impact until you hear the emotional voice of the father of an autistic child who had been locked in his frustrating world until “Emma” entered their home, but is now witnessing the change in his son that gives renewed hope for his future. Or the combat medic veteran suffering from PTSD, treated by countless doctors and medications to no avail who was actually contemplating suicide prior to receiving “Daisy” but now finally being able to sleep at night. Daisy senses his bad dreams before he’s aware of them, nudging him out of that sleep pattern before the dreams manifest to give him peace of mind in knowing that his daughter won’t have to witness those outbursts. Perhaps it’s the young woman who suffers from epilepsy, uncontrolled by medication, who depended on “Tucker” for giving her life back as he pulled her out of seizure activity when no one or nothing else could, and giving her the confidence to overcome medical and social anxiety so she could obtain a college degree.
You’ll comprehend the life-altering perspective after hearing from the mom of a diabetic child relating that “Sunny never forgets his job. He is a hero…he’s our hero.” (see front page image) Diabetic-alert dogs are trained to detect the changes in blood sugar to signal diabetics, and especially their parents, of the need to test before a serious episode occurs. Hearing a parent share that they can sleep better at night knowing the service dog is on constant alert helps you realize just what a difference these dogs make in the lives of their owners. As one diabetic-alert dog owner explains, “There’s not a moment when you’re not thinking something can go wrong and you can end up in the hospital. Diabetes isn’t just needles, it takes your entire life away…and he gave me that back.”
But the difference isn’t just limited to the dog owners – it also extends to numerous individuals in a correctional facility in Florida who are learning to train these service dogs – individuals who are discovering how to re-program their minds, emotions, and negative reactions to situations as they are training dogs for service to others. In turn, they are changing their own lives as they master the self-discipline necessary to prepare for life beyond incarceration. Coupled with the reduced recidivism rates for those who participate in the Prison Training Team, it’s a positive impact for our society that deserves implementation in correctional facilities across our nation.
Through seed grant money provided by the Alabama Department of Education, Service Dogs Alabama has also placed Facility Dogs in dozens of state school systems to support the various psychological and emotional issues of students.
Educators and counselors in our schools are daily faced with the challenges of meeting not only their students’ educational goals, but also in creating a “safe haven” needed by so many children as a result of increasingly negative outside influences which carry into the classroom. Teachers and counselors who have the benefit of a Facility Dog in their schools attest to the improvement in classroom attendance and behavior, reduced social and testing anxiety, the ability to draw children out of emotional distress due to home life conflict, and a reduction in disciplinary reports and office referrals, all directly attributed to the ability of the Facility Dogs to positively influence behavior and defuse anxious situations.
While these are stories of such hope and encouragement, it’s also a reminder that there is unfortunately an expanding need for even more service dogs within our state. There are currently 52 applications for service dogs, and the cost for the two to three-year training program, including veterinary care, is $40,000.00 per dog. Recipients of these dogs are required to cover some of the cost, but the majority of funding is obtained via donor contributions, and as with all non-profits during the pandemic year, fundraising has been a challenge.
One of my husband’s favorite adages states there’s a reason “dog” is “God” spelled backwards, and perhaps that’s why dogs are considered “man’s best friend.” While I know that’s not sound biblical doctrine, one thing is certain as it relates to Service Dogs Alabama – they are without a doubt doing the Lord’s work in mending the lives of so many in our fallen world, and they are truly worthy of financial support.
Service Dogs Alabama is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and donations are tax-deductible. For more information, visit http://www.servicedogsalabama.org.