By Guest Blogger Kyria Henry, Founder, paws4people™
In this day and age, many of us who are friends and advocates of people with disabilities are constantly astonished by the continued lack of progress in our fellow Americans’ understanding and acceptance of people with different abilities and the assistive technologies they employ. At least, I know that I am.
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Kyria Henry, and in 1999, at the age of 12, I founded the nonprofit, paws4people™, fulfilling my simple dream to use dogs as a means of helping people. With the assistance of my father, we launched this program to enhance the lives of special and regular education students, seniors and those living with a serious illness or disability by utilizing the “special powers” of canine companionship. Our highly-trained Assistance Dogs provide support in areas including: mobility service, psychiatric service, educational assistance, rehabilitative assistance and social-therapy.
To date, paws4people™ has more than 175 dogs within its various specialized programs. These dogs have accomplished more than 300,000 therapeutic contacts. Additional dogs are in various stages of their training and will also enter these working programs. In all, paws4people™ has more than 150 volunteers and operates in nine states.
Presently, we specialize in training customized Assistance Dogs for two general populations: children and adolescents with physical, neurological, psychiatric or emotional disabilities; and Veterans and active-duty Service Members with Chronic/Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
Working in, developing and progressing the field of Assistance Dogs for the past 12 plus years, I have discovered countless times that the lack of acceptance, which impacts Americans with disabilities on a daily basis, readily extends to the Assistance Dogs so highly trained and relied upon to serve those individuals.
Almost everyone today is aware of the service Dog Guides provide to people who are blind; and the ways we should interact (or rather, not interact) with them in public – the fact that they have access to absolutely any public place with their handler who is blind and so forth. More recently, the public has become accustomed to people with obvious mobility limitations, namely those who use wheelchairs, being accompanied by Mobility Service Dogs. Credit for this increased awareness is due to the many organizations nationwide – and now worldwide – that are placing Mobility Service Dogs, as well as increasing publicity and awareness of them and their importance in the lives of people with disabilities.
However, there are many newer, unique applications of Assistance Dogs with which people are still unfamiliar. As such, their role, necessity and access rights are often questioned. As an organization that specializes in training and placing many of these “newer” types of Assistance Dogs, paws4people™ has recognized the vast need for education on this issue, as with so many others the world of disabilities has and will continue to face.
For example, in the philosophy of paws4people™, a child with a disability has equal potential gain from the use of an Assistance Dog as an adult with a disability. We believe that children and adolescents can and should be considered as clients and be taught how to utilize a custom-trained Assistance Dog to mitigate the effects of their disability. In these instances, proper training and utilization of an Assistance Dog allows a child with a disability to independently perform tasks that are common for his or her peers. Over time, this negates the necessity of over-dependence on adults and aids, hence allowing the child to grow and mature more like their typically developing peers. This, in our philosophy, is the very essence of independence – and helping a person to gain independence is the most commonly stated role of an Assistance Dog.
As another example, paws4people™, through our paws4vets™ program, is specializing in placing Psychiatric Service Dogs with Veterans and active-duty Service Members with psychiatric or emotional diagnoses as a result of PTSD and/or TBI. These dogs must perform tasks for the benefit of these Veterans with disabilities; and it should be mentioned that simply providing emotional support does not qualify*. Many of these recipients have “invisible disabilities” and consequently, their use of Assistance Dogs and rights to gain access with their dogs to any public venue are questioned more readily than a handler of an Assistance Dog whose disability is visible. Therefore, we feel it is important for people to learn and understand that these dogs, when utilized correctly and within the confines of the law, are providing invaluable services to their users by allowing them to further their recovery and return to their previous lifestyles. This is yet another example of priceless, well-deserved independence.
I hope that these few examples have served to broaden your consideration and understanding of Assistance Dogs in our society. The mission of paws4people™ is to widen the scope of education about the limitless world of Assistance Dogs, the countless jobs they can perform and the wonderful recipients they so loyally and lovingly serve. So the next time you see a dog working in your neighborhood grocery store or politely laying under a table at your favorite restaurant, realize that the person on the other end of the leash might be someone you least expect. In fact, the Assistance Dog might be serving someone without you even being able to identify the reasons why and how. But isn’t that what the world of different abilities is about? Teaching ourselves and others to un-train our brains and expect the unexpected – that every individual is capable of achieving anything, regardless of the way their body or mind goes about doing it – even if it requires the help of a dog.
At just 12 years old, Kyria Henry founded paws4people™, and later paws4vets™, training and pairing service dogs with Veterans, active duty Service Members, children, seniors and individuals living with disabilities or serious illnesses. In 2011, she was recognized as the grand-prize winner in Ikea’s national Life Improvement Sabbatical Contest, where she received $100,000 to spend a year focusing on helping others through her organization.