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Foster homes needed for service dogs in training

Published: Mar. 28, 2021 at 7:47 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - 4 Paws for Ability is an organization working to unleash the possibilities for people of all abilities by matching them with service dogs. The local branch here in Alaska is searching for dog-loving volunteers to help look after the dogs when they’re not in training school.

Peg Walsh Bernert knows all too well the important role of a service dog. When Bernert’s autistic son was three years old, he went missing. Just when they began to fear the worst, they finally found him hiding behind some dog kennels in the garage.

“I just remember saying, ‘a dog would have found him.’ We were calling and looking in the kennels, but not behind them,” said Bernert. “At that point he didn’t answer to his name, so that night when I calmed down, I just went to my computer and Googled ‘autism and service dog.’”

That’s when she found 4 Paws for Ability based out of Ohio. Bernert said she went to Ohio for a training class and came back with a golden retriever named Halo. She said Halo brought peace of mind to the entire family, and independence to her son.

“All of a sudden everything changed for me because I was able to take my children to the store together,” said Bernert. “I always tell this story, but one time I needed milk before Halo, and I’m like, ‘there’s no way I’m going to the store to get milk. We’re not having milk. Sorry.’ After Halo, sure we could go get milk, because he had freedom to walk all around me. He loved it because he had freedom. I wasn’t gripping him.”

Bernert wanted to share that peace of mind with others here in Alaska, so she became a training director for 4 Paws for Ability and started the local branch here. So far, she’s helped place about thirty dogs here in Alaska. Now they’re in need of weekend fosters for the dogs currently in training. The dogs are typically around a year old and are primarily labs and golden retrievers. CEO and founder of the organization, Karen Shirk says the responsibility would be to have the 4 Paws service dog in training hang out with the person or family in the home and potentially go in public to work on socialization.

“On the weekends, it would be allowing the dog to live in a home environment and get used to being in a family setting,” said Shirk. “They would take the dog with them places they go. So if they go shopping, they would take the dog shopping, take the dog to the mall. Wherever they’re going, they would take the dog for those socialization experiences, but the biggest thing is to kind of give them a feel for family life, because after all, when they’re placed, they’re going to be part of a family.”

The dogs are training for many different abilities, like for those who are deaf, need help with mobility, kids with diabetes, veterans with PTSD and more. Each dog brings a bit of extra love, comfort, and independence to families that need it.

“The difference that a service dog makes in your life is phenomenal,” said Shirk. “You go from people kind of staring at you because of your disability, to not even seeing your disability and only seeing that you have this great dog with you, and then they get to learn about you, and meet you, and find out that people with disabilities are just like everybody else.”

The organization welcomes any volunteers regardless of prior experience. 4 Paws covers the cost to participate in the program, including the medical care and supplies to care for the service dog in training. For more information or to apply to become a foster, visit the 4 Paws for Ability website.

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