Putting paws to work

By Josette Keelor — jkeelor@nvdaily.com
ROUND HILL — Few young people put a lot of thought into their career field before high school or college, and many change majors once or twice before joining the work force. Many people even switch careers later in life.

Kyria L. Henry, however, never thought twice about her chosen life’s work. The 23-year-old Loudoun County resident has been working with service dogs since she was 11.

Now deputy executive director and founder of the paws4people foundation, she knows her career choice is right.

When she was 10, her parents allowed her to have a dog. After noticing how her grandparents reacted to her pet’s personality, Henry realized that others could benefit from the dog’s presence as well.

“[It] started with a family friend who worked at a nursing home,” she says. “I had one [dog] then, and then somehow I got two puppies at one time, so I had three.”

She began bringing the dogs into schools around the area too, as aids in special education classes. The dogs became “a unique way to get the kids to meet their IEP [individualized education program] goals.”

Dogs had been used sporadically in various situations, Henry says, but the practice was not well-known or regulated.

“It wasn’t a niche used,” she says, and she recognized a need, particularly in classrooms.
With the help of her father, she “developed the standard for educational assistance dogs,” she says.

Used as an assistance tool, she says her program is a pioneer in the industry.
She describes her experience with paws4people as “like going down a decade-long mountain.”

“We have over 175 [dogs] right now who are certified and working or in our training program throughout nine states,” she says. Besides Virginia, she has dogs assigned to Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and West Virginia.

More than 150 people volunteer with the program.

“My career goal would be to have operations nationally,” she says.

Dogs are placed with people who need them, but they must be useful, Henry says. They’re there to work.

“There’s just such a demand that that commodity cannot just become a pet,” she says.
Paws4people specializes in placing dogs with children and adolescents, active duty soldiers and veterans, she says. A branch of paws4people — paws4vets — began in 2008 and aids veterans.

Through paws4prisons, a 2006 expansion program, five active dogs currently work in federal prisons, where the dogs live around the clock with inmates who train them.
“Every part of their learning is controlled,” Henry says of the dogs. “They can learn 110 commands in the prison.” Whether or not the dogs graduate from the program, however, depends on their ability to perform the commands outside of the training program with other people, Henry says.

“It’s kind of like going to college,” she says of the dogs’ training. They even learn to read.
They can read commands off of cards for people with limited vision, she says.

Often each dog receives training specific to the individual who needs it. Each dog is personalized according to the recipient’s need, and clients agree when they become a part of the program to take a public awareness course.

“We have an extensive application process, and then we do home visits to see where the dogs will live,” she says. The dogs meet the clients early in the process, and assignments are based on compatibility with clients.

By the time the dog has learned what it needs for its job, she says, it has also had time to bond with the client.

“We set them up for that,” she says of the dogs. “So, they’re usually excited to go.”
The demand for personalized service dogs is high, Henry says, and she has to turn away up to 10 applications a week.

Though she currently volunteers her time to paws4people, receiving donations, sponsorships and grants to support operations, she hopes to make the organization her career.

“It’s just kind of become what I do,” says Henry, who works part-time dog-sitting. “I just became known as the dog girl.”

Knowing how to train dogs effectively is essential to the business, but she says there is no standard and no right or wrong way. She has learned through trial and error, and each dog requires a different method.

“There’s no degree in training dogs,” she says. “It’s customized.”

Henry earned a degree from West Virginia University in multidisciplinary studies in three disciplines — business administration, speech pathology and religious studies, and she minored in disability studies.

Always on the lookout for donations and aid, she applied “on a whim” for the IKEA Life Improvement Sabbatical Contest and is now one of five finalists competing for the $100,000 prize. The sabbatical offers the opportunity to spend a year helping improve the lives of others, according to the contest’s informational material.

She travels so much already, though, that she says the money would be the real prize.
“It would be extraordinary.”

The last two years have been difficult, she says. Paying for the infrastructure and health care for the dogs is essential, and requires a lot of attention.

Paws4people has a very small-scale rescue program, but receives most of its dogs through an internal breeding program and works mainly with golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers because of the breeds’ good reputations.

The benefits the program provides to clients are endless, says Henry’s father, Terry, who helps on the business side.

“I’ve been using dogs, training dogs, ever since I was 6 years old,” he says, although he says his daughter’s decision to pursue her hobby of working with service dogs was her own decision.

“I think that was really her own personal thing,” Henry’s father says. He never used service dogs as a client, he says, but he has benefited from having dogs.

“I am a veteran with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder],” he says.

Having noticed the calming effects dogs have had on him, Henry’s father understands how they can benefit others as well, and he tells stories of clients whose psychological or physical symptoms have abated after they worked for several weeks with their service dogs.

One child with cerebral palsy, he noticed, could not take even a few steps before receiving a dog. Afterward, he witnessed the child walk from one end of a school to the other.

A nonverbal child working with one of the dogs began asking for a brush to help pet the dog.

In his case and the case of others with PTSD, “It’s that ability for you to become secure again,” Henry’s father says. “Everything’s a threat.”

He says the dog becomes “somebody there who can read your emotions and can intercede.”

“It’s customized,” his daughter says, explaining that every dog is different and responds to different strategies for learning, just like the people they aid. “I think if you have one way of dog training, you’re not really a dog trainer.”

For more information about paws4people, go online to paws4people.org.