“We are not giving the dog UP – we are giving the dog TO.”
In the summer of 2008, a few of us started on a journey to train a litter of Labrador Retriever puppies to become Helping Paws service dogs. Some of us had been with Helping Paws for a while; others were new to the organization. For all of us, we thought we came for the dogs. Bev and Herb, longtime foster home trainers and supporters of Helping Paws, whelped their first litter of puppies as a caretaker home – the Jack x Sheba litter. Our volunteer caretaker homes foster our breeding females, whelp the litters and care for the puppies until they are seven –eight weeks old.
Joan, Pamela, Mary, Heidi and Dan became the foster home trainers for these puppies. All were new to Helping Paws as foster home trainers. All came with different backgrounds and experiences – as fosters for rescue dogs, as parents with children at home, as employees in a variety of fields. Most had some dog training experience. All came for the dogs.
Helping Paws’ foster home trainers foster and train the dogs for the full two to two-and-a-half years it takes to gain the skills necessary to be a service dog. They attend weekly classes, usually with the entire litter in one class. Maureen was the volunteer instructor for this group of five. This was her first class as lead instructor; she came to Helping Paws a few years earlier for the dogs. The foster home trainers attended class weekly. Bev and Herb dropped by to see the dogs frequently. For the pups’ first birthday, Bev and Herb had a deck party at their home. Sheba and her puppies – the dogs – were the highlight of the evening. Two-and-a-half years goes by quickly. Three of the dogs had career changes due to health or temperament issues – their foster home trainers adopted them as pets. Neville, Rhoda and Theo are “living the life” with Dan, Heidi and Pamela. Bud, trained by Joan, was placed as a successor service dog with Neil, who winters in Florida – he became a boat dog. Joan sees him occasionally at Helping Paws’ events. Bud recognizes Joan; he is fully bonded with Neil.
Micky is a woman in northern Minnesota with cognitive and physical disabilities. She had just lost her first skilled companion dog, a Lab from Helping Paws trained by Bev and Herb. Kaia, trained by Mary, was placed with her as a successor dog. Kaia awakens Micky to start her day, carries items in a basket for her, and helps Micky do her stretching exercises. Bev and Maureen made the journey with Kaia to see if she and Micky were a match. Maureen took Kaia back for team training. Mary sees Micky and Kaia on her way up north each summer; Kaia greets her and returns to Micky.
Fast forward a few years. Bev and Herb have a second breeding female now, a Lab named Myrtle. When the Huey x Myrtle pups were born a year ago, Mary, Joan, Pamela, Heidi and Maureen visited them on the way to dinner. Yes, we still get together for dinner a couple times a year. The children have grown, the jobs have changed, and we love to catch up on each other’s lives.
Joan, Mary and Heidi are all current foster home trainers for Helping Paws. Pamela plans on returning in the future. Maureen is now on staff at Helping Paws, instructing cases and recruiting foster home trainers. Though the dogs drew us in, the people have kept us there. We bonded with each other through our love of dogs and our desire to help people with disabilities further their independence. As Mary said, “We came to make a difference and impact someone’s life through the gift of a trained service dog – what we didn’t realize was the difference and impact that our classmates made in our lives as well.” From Heidi: “As hard as it was to have Rhoda withdrawn from the program, it was harder to realize that I wouldn’t be coming back to class with the friends that I had made.” Is it hard to give the dog up? Sure. Rob, a former foster home trainer who now assists with teaching our classes, has a different perspective: “We are not giving the dog UP – we are giving the dog TO.” And many of our foster home trainers then foster another dog, to give the gift of a best friend to someone, and to stay connected with the friends they have made through this journey. Helping Paws’ annual Foster Home Trainer Open House is Saturday March 21, 9:00 am – 11:30 am, at Helping Paws, 630 12th Ave South, Hopkins, MN, 55343. Come meet our foster home trainers, our dogs-in-training, and our graduate teams. You’ll come for the dogs…and want to stay for the people.
Learn more about training a service dog.