The Amazing Story of 4 Paws for Ability

Karen Shirk once depended on a respirator and even considered suicide. Instead, she built a place where anyone with a disability could go for help.

4 Paws for Ability founder and executive director Karen Shirk with her service dog, Piper the papillon. By Jessica Noll/4 Paws for Ability, by permission.
4 Paws for Ability founder and executive director Karen Shirk with her service dog, Piper the papillon. By Jessica Noll/4 Paws for Ability, by permission.

In 1998, Karen Shirk nearly died. She was home alone, recovering from open heart surgery, when she experienced a potentially lethal reaction to her medication.

But her life was spared thanks to the intervention of her service dog, Ben.

Karen’s story is no longer a remarkable tale of a human in need and the heroics of a wonderful, intelligent service animal. Given the number of service animals employed around the world and the advances in skilled training, there are ample amazing, heartwarming stories each year.

What is remarkable about this story is the path Karen’s life took after her recovery and the inspiration Ben continues to provide to hundreds of disabled people and their dogs.

The Days of Death

“The days of death” is a description Karen uses to designate the period of her life following her diagnosis of a rare neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis (MG). This disease robbed her of many physical functions, required numerous hospital stays, and rendered her dependent on a respirator to breathe.

Karen was persuaded to look into getting a service dog to help out with some of the daily functions her body was no longer able to perform. She applied to several agencies. Karen tells the story of the many times her applications for a service dog were denied.

Even today, more than 20 years later, you can still hear the despair as she recalls the day she received the letter that read:

“We are sorry, but our agency guidelines prohibit the placement of service dogs with people who use ventilators.”

Karen was literally considered “too disabled” to receive a service dog.

And so she began to prepare for the only thing left in her power to accomplish — suicide. She saved enough medication to end her suffering, her despair — her life.

Then… the Light

Karen’s plan for suicide, fortunately, never came to fruition. Thanks to her indomitable spirit, the encouragement of friends, and a guardian angel with four legs and a tail, she lost the will to die. Instead, she came out fighting.

Karen took obtaining a service dog into her own hands. She found Ben, a magnificent black German Shepherd. Their bond was immediate. When she couldn’t find an agency to provide Ben with service dog training, she took up the training herself and attended every available class at a local dog training school.

When Ben accelerated to more advanced classes, volunteers from the school helped. Karen met a student specializing in service dog training, and he came to her home to teach her and to provide concentrated sessions for Ben. In 1996, Karen was able to return to work with her dog’s assistance.

From the Ashes

Karen lay in bed each night with Ben at her feet. She counted her many blessings and began to feel good about her prospects. Despite all she had overcome, she was still troubled about the lack of service dogs for people who did not fit specific criteria.

A dream began to take form. Karen wanted more than anything to create a place where anyone with a disability could go for help. With the considerable guidance of 12 initial board members, Karen began building 4 Paws for Ability.

2 Wings and a Prayer

4 Paws for AbilityIn October 1998, Karen incorporated the nonprofit agency 4 Paws for Ability Inc. The first few years were painfully slow. Karen recruited trainers to work with a couple of dogs at a time. She ran the agency from her small apartment in Columbus, Ohio.

The recipients of the first 4 Paws dogs were people from the local community. Karen soon became aware of a gaping hole in the traditional service dog training system: No agency offered specialized training of dogs for young children. So Karen found her true passion; she started concentrating on providing skilled service dogs capable of public access for children.

With the help of volunteers, expert trainers and the Internet, the news of Karen’s special operation spread. The agency soon grew by 300%. Miraculous stories of the children and their families who were helped by the intervention of a 4 Paws service dog began pouring in. With each successful placement, Karen and her staff were inspired to increase their efforts to serve.

Room to Grow

The success of 4 Paws for Ability is certainly attributed to the determination, motivation and leadership of Karen Shirk. She has the uncanny ability to see opportunity and build on need-with-need.

Three years into the development of 4 Paws, Karen contacted Jeremy Dulebohn, the young student trainer who had worked with Karen and Ben in the early days of her recovery.

Jeremy had worked with National Canine and later opened his own training business. He was intrigued by the 4 Paws concept, and he was eager to accept the position of training director for the agency. Jeremy brought a new level of professional training for the dogs at 4 Paws. Business continued to boom.

Karen found a 100-year-old house and grounds in Xenia, Ohio, and moved the operation there. Soon she bought an abandoned VFW building with 2 acres of adjoining property, and the training center and kennels were expanded. The primary 4 Paws facility remains at the Xenia location today. Dogs are housed and trained at the old VFW post. The training ring is an old parquet dance floor complete with a mirror disco ball.

The Xenia operation has an on-site medical clinic managed by a full-time veterinarian. The dogs get regular physical exams, spaying and neutering, inoculations, preventive health treatments and regular grooming while they are in training. Community volunteers work with the 42 staff members to provide human interaction and care for the animals.

At any given time, there are about 60 dogs at the Xenia compound, but the program does not stop there.

Part of the campus in Xenia, Ohio. By permission.
Part of the campus in Xenia, Ohio. Used by permission.

The cost of training a service dog is considerable. With the continued growth of 4 Paws and the applications to help needy children, Karen realized she needed to mitigate some of the financial burden, especially with puppies. Enter the Mission Pawsible program.

In 2000, 4 Paws began a pilot program with Warren Correctional Institute. The model provided pairing a 4 Paws puppy with prison inmates who have earned a high merit status. The inmates gain the right to have a puppy live in the cell with them. They must attend classes run by Jeremy Dulebohn and his training staff, who work with the dogs on initial socialization and basic training skills.

This program has been a tremendous success. 4 Paws gains a valuable resource for the initial training of puppies; the inmates gain the benefits of companionship and affection from their charge. Participating inmates are also learning a job skill through the training of the dog. There is a certain gratification in the knowledge of the service the inmate is providing for a disabled child.

Mission Pawsible provides such a positive means of inmate rehabilitation that the collaborative effort is now a permanent program in five prison systems.

4 Paws on Campus

Another successful, collaborative foster program is 4 Paws University. Obviously the inmates encounter a distinct disadvantage: the essential socialization of service dogs. A service dog must be able to move through crowds and adapt to many public environments. So the use of college students for the second-tier training of 4 Paws dogs has become a viable opportunity.

Select college students foster a 4 Paws dog in training for a semester. The dogs go nearly everywhere with the student: to class, activities, shopping, meetings, events — basically anywhere a service dog would be exposed. Students must attend regular training classes.

Currently six universities participate in the 4 Paws on Campus Program. Nearly 60 dogs have completed the program so far this year. In fact, 10 foster dogs walked with their students during commencement ceremonies at their respective school.

More Than a Number

To quantify the efforts of the people behind the 4 Paws success story is nearly impossible.

To date, the agency has placed more than 750 service dogs with disabled child companions. Each dog that successfully graduates the program represents around $22,000 in housing, training and placement costs. Families who apply for a 4 Paws service dog are asked to raise $13,000.

Beneficiaries and their family are required to attend a training course on campus at the 4 Paws facility before the dog is placed.

4 Paws retains ownership of the dog, which is surrendered to the agency upon retirement. In the event a dog and companion do not work out, the dog is placed back into rotation or becomes available for adoption. Service dogs must be recertified by 4 Paws yearly. The cost of maintaining a service dog is about $2,000 a year.

Puppies enter the 4 Paws training program at 6 to 8 weeks of age. It takes an exceptional dog to become a service dog, and not all dogs pass the program. Of the 300 dogs in the training program annually, only 100 make it to graduation. Approximately 95% of the dogs enter the program though the agency’s select breeding program.

The rest enter by donation from breeders. Every dog is constantly evaluated for health status and temperament. Any dog that fails the program is placed on the adoption list or returned to the donor.

The Bark Heard Around the World

4 Paws has expanded services to include training dogs for assistance to military veterans with physical or emotional disabilities.  The agency works with trainers in Asia, Europe and Australia to develop models for expanding the agency’s mission internationally. A 4 Paws branch was recently opened in Anchorage, Alaska. The interest and need for skilled service dogs is a worldwide concern.

You can reach out to be a part of this exceptional organization. 4 Paws for Ability is a 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be made through their website.

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