Although she uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her arms and legs, Dori Tempio doesn’t panic when she drops her cell phone and can’t reach down to pick it up. Instead, she calmly issues a cue to her two-year-old Labrador retriever, Casper, who finds the phone, picks it up and gently delivers it back to her. When asked, Casper also can turn lights on and off, lift the footrest of Dori’s wheelchair to assist her in transferring, help her out of her coat and perform more than 60 other duties. “Casper allows me to be a self reliant, productive member of society,” Dori says. “I can’t tell you how important that is to me.”
Stories like this make Jen Rogers smile. Jen is the founder and executive director of Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services – PAALS – the organization that trained Casper and partnered him with Dori. “Dogs can change lives in the most amazing ways,” she says.
For Jen, PAALS is the culmination of a nearly lifelong dream. As a teenager, she read about a program in the Florida Keys that used marine mammals to reach out to children with autism. It captivated her. “Through that program, I saw how animals could be taught to help people both emotionally and physically. I wanted to do the same thing someday with a program of my own.”
Excited about the future and armed with a plan, Jen majored in biology and minored in psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. After graduation, she put her skills to work training marine mammals at an aquarium in Connecticut and finding every opportunity she could to let special needs children benefit from their presence.
She also ran a program that paired at-risk teens with animals.
But it was in Columbia that Jen was finally able to fulfill her dream, and in 2006 she founded PAALS. Since then, PAALS has created eight dog/human teams and have placed two additional dogs in different service roles. Some dog partners, like Casper, live with the individuals they help, providing day-to-day assistance.
In addition to assisting people in wheelchairs, the dogs also can be taught to support children with autism by using deep relief pressure and other techniques to calm them when necessary. PAALS also is now training dogs to assist people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other service dogs spend their days in clinical settings where, partnered with a single therapist, they assist a variety of patients in meeting their specific goals. “These dogs are more than therapy dogs, who tend to provide comfort,” explains Jen. “They’re actually part of clinical plans that help people function with their disabilities.”
AJ is one such dog. Since September, when he was partnered with Rebecca Terry, an occupational therapist at Palmetto Health Richland, AJ has helped patients recovering from strokes, surgeries or traumatic accidents regain strength, range of motion, coordination and cognitive abilities. In one exercise, patients are asked to remove a specific card from one of the pockets sewn into a special cape that AJ wears to work. “We could do similar exercises on a table, but having AJ there takes the stress away and makes it more fun for the patients,” says Rebecca. “We’ll also have him stand in a certain spot so that the patient has to turn a certain way to reach him. It’s much more motivating to have to reach to pat a dog than to do it for the sake of doing it!” And while AJ is a superstar during the day, at night, when he goes home with Rebecca, he becomes a regular dog.
AJ and occupational therapist Rebecca Terry work with patient Margaret Buchanan. Photography by Field Brabham/Palmetto Health
Not every dog has what it takes to be a PAALS dog. Puppies, which are usually bred from long lines of working service dogs, need to be focused more on people than on dogs, have strong retrieval instincts and show no aggressive behavior. Since they’ll be working hard, pushing, pulling, tugging and grabbing, they must also be strong. The organization has had the most success with both Labrador and Golden Retrievers, a mix of the two and Labradoodles.
The two-year training process begins when the puppies are just three days old. “It’s minimal but strategic,” she says. “Since they absolutely cannot be afraid of traffic or thunderstorms, we play CDs of those noises right from the start.”
For the next four months, puppies receive daily lessons that include trips with volunteers to malls, grocery stores and other public places, where they begin to learn not to lunge at people, eat off the floor or bark at loud noises. Their next stop is prison, where, for a little over a year, they become the responsibility of specially-screened inmates who continue each puppy’s training with the help of a professional who visits the prison for twice-a-week training sessions. While they’re in prison, the pups eat, sleep and play with their inmate owners, who, not surprisingly, become very attached to their charges. “The prisoners benefit tremendously from having the responsibility of caring for an animal,” says Jen. “How these dogs positively affect people along the way — prisoners, volunteer dog walkers and weekend foster families — before they go off to work is a whole separate benefit of the program.”
At 18 months, the dogs, now well-versed in self control, leave prison to begin to learn the skills they’ll need in their working lives. Depending on their placement, they’ll be taught how to push elevator buttons, hit emergency buttons on specially-built phones, open doors and respond to visual cues, such as a non-verbal signal to step in when an autistic child needs a well-practiced dose of therapeutic puppy love. In the end, PAALS will spend more than $25,000 to train each dog. And although there’s no charge, recipients are asked to help with fundraising to cover their tuition for the class they take to learn how to work with their dogs.
Because it isn’t just the dogs that receive training. Before they can go home with their dog, each human recipient must participate in an intensive two-and-a-half-week team training program that includes both written and hands-on skills tests. “To watch the teams grow and bond over the two-week time period is amazing,” says Jen. “It’s the first step of a life-changing partnership.”
Want to help? PAALS needs more than donations. If you can donate time by volunteering to walk or play with the dogs while they’re at PAALS or serve as a weekend foster home — perfect for working families who can’t commit to a full-time dog — visit www.paals.org.