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Program trains dogs to assist humans with special needs


LEBANON JUNCTION - Teaching an old dog new tricks is difficult. Training young dogs to assist humans with special needs, that serves a purpose.

Some 50 puppies have been trained to do such tedious tasks by a local non-profit organization known as Paws with Purpose.

Founded in 2003, PWP professionally trains dogs to become assisted living partners.

PWP founder Sharon Gretsinger officially incorporated the new organization following years of obedience training in Atlanta. The PWP location in Lebanon Junction is her first training facility.

"I left corporate America to do this full-time," said Gretsinger. "We had people that went to other organizations and couldn't receive a dog. It's needed here, too much demand and not enough supply."

Gretsinger estimated 65-70 dogs have gone through various aspects of the PWP program, though not all graduate.

"It takes a lot to find a few," she said.

PWP starts their process with volunteer trainers taking puppies hone for a period of around 18 months. Puppy trainers must agree to teach basic commands and behavioral traits.

"They aren't keeping 'pet' dogs," said Gretsinger. "Owners must be dedicated."

Gretsinger stresses manners first, then simple tasks such as holds and carries, which prepare the dog for more technical tasks.

"We fine-tune their skills when they come here," said Gretsinger. "If all I get is simple manners and social skills, that's all I need."

Bullitt County resident Eva Lynn Mills has trained Dakota for over 15 months. Dakota is preparing to enter the PWP advanced training.

Mills said all puppy trainers live with the realization that they return the dogs to PWP for advanced training. When Dakota leaves Mills will take in Belle, another PWP candidate.

"Sometimes it's good to have one to start in," said Mills. "It is very hard to give them up, especially after you take them everywhere."

Sue Wettle is currently training her third dog, Stone. The puppy is scheduled for advanced training in February.

"Stone has a lot of really positive characteristics," said Wettle. "He likes to work and he's good-natured with other dogs."

Once brought to the PWP training facility, a more intense learning process prepares dogs for specific tasks to assist future owners. The process usually takes between four and eight months.

When dogs are ready and clients are selected, the two meet at the PWP training center. They participate together in two weeks of specialty training.

Stephanie Speigel was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis just over a year ago. Speigel is the proud new owner of Annie, a recent PWP graduate.

"(Annie) is good for me, she's laid back," Speigel said.

Annie wears a special bracing harness including an assistance handle for Speigel.

"It's harder for me to get up," said Speigel. "The bracing harness helps me balance."

Speigel has double banisters at home that allow her to move around. With Annie and the bracing harness she can do the same anywhere, even when her husband isn't available.

"I can go to the mall," Speigel said with a smile. "I used to never have anything to hold onto."

While many dogs such as Annie will live with specific owners, not all PWP dogs are trained for such assistance.

Madison and Adam are two of PWP's dogs in training for work with Frazier Rehab in Louisville.

"They're like employees," said Jill Farmer, manager of recreation therapy and adapted sports for Frazier Rehab. She assisted Adam through advanced training.

According to Farmer, the Frazier staff is trained to work with the pet therapy program. Gretsinger formerly volunteered with the Frazier program.

"We saw the (PWP) organization grow," said Farmer. "We decided to write a grant to the IAMS corporation."

Farmer said PWP dogs could work with most hospital patients of various disabling conditions, either adult or child. Stroke victims can work with dogs to improve speech through commands.

Physical therapist Emily Bartz works with Madison, a two-year-old Lab that has worked at Frazier since she was a puppy. Bartz will take care of Madison.

"Off duty (Madison) is a pet dog," said Bartz. "We'll take walks in the park."

Madison will work 8 to 5 weekdays, similar to Bartz's schedule. A 'home area' will be created in the Frazier offices for Madison's break time.

"We can't work her eight hours straight," said Bartz. "She needs breaks."

According to Bartz, the Frazier dogs have been in service for seven years. Thanks to PWP, Frazier can increase the program's implementation of the pets.

"It will be different to have dogs on a more consistent basis," Bartz said.

Jim Walser, CEO of locally-based Walser Companies, Inc., is one of PWP's clients. His companion is Beau, one of PWP's first graduates.

Walser is a paraplegic. Beau was trained specifically to work with Walser's needs, everything from retrieving water bottles to pulling off socks.

"They do pair the dog with the person," said Walser. "Beau has been excellent. He's a great companion and he's well-trained. A lot of people relate him to a seeing-eye dog."

Walser referred to PWP as "a wonderful organization," praising Gretsinger and the many volunteers for their efforts.

"There's a lot of unsung heroes," he said. "Everything in this organization is all volunteer. That's heartwarming. I'll support (PWP) for as long as I'm around. I give the staff and the puppy trainers all the credit in the world."

In fact, Walser is pleased to be a visual advertisement for the organization.

"We're goodwill ambassadors," he said. "We can show it's an awesome program."

Gretsinger mentioned having good friends with impairments, adding that she learned a lot about her life through theirs.

"That's why the personal interest," she said. "I didn't take this job lightly. I knew this was going to be a huge undertaking."

Gretsinger admitted PWP was growing at a phenomenal rate, thanking all of the volunteers for keeping up with all needs.

"We'd never dream we'd be this far," she said.

For more information or to make a donation to Paws with Purpose call 955-8487 or write to [email protected].


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