I have a soft spot for service dogs. I’ve known a couple service dogs, and on this site, we’ve covered some pretty amazing stories about service dogs around the world. I truly think service dogs and the people who help provide them provide one of the best, most noble services out there.
So I was extremely excited when Karen Shirk, the CEO of on my favorite service dog organizations, 4 Paws for Ability, set aside 15 minutes to chat with us.
Aside from having an amazing story herself (her life was saved by a service dog), she’s a true expert in this field. And that was very exciting to me, because while I admire service dog organizations greatly, I really don’t know much about the ins and outs of the service dog world.
I highly recommend listening to the interview, since Karen is amazing, but if you can’t I’ll summarize her answers below (these aren’t verbatim, so if you want to hear Karen’s full answers—and you do—check out the interview).
For the folks who don’t know, what is 4 Paws for Ability?
4 Paws for Ability is an agency that trains and places service dogs—mostly for disabled children, although they have a small veterans program as well.
You have an amazing personal story, too. You’re actually alive today because of a service dog, correct?
Yes! Karen has a German shepherd, who’s a mobility service dog. After a surgery, her morphine pump malfunctioned. When her dad called to check on her, he answered the phone and barked, alerting Karen’s dad that something was wrong. He was actually still barking when the police arrived.
In fact, Karen tells us that her dog really saved her life twice. She was so physically disabled, she began to lose hope in… well, life. If it weren’t for her amazing dog, she says, she may not be here today.
Did that spark your passion for service dogs, or were you involved in the service dog world before that?
Karen had been thinking about starting a service dog agency since 1998, so she had already been in the world for a while.
A lot of our readers ask about training service dogs for kids, and we think it’s a really special mission. What’s different about training a service dog for a child as opposed to adults?
Karen was quick to point out that virtually everything is different when you’re training a service dog to work with kids.
First, she says, you need a different kind of dog. They have to be kid-safe, and they have to be well-acclimated to their child’s behavior. Because of this, they often place dogs when they’re younger, essentially letting the dog and child grow up together, which gives the dog a lot of time to get used to some of the unique requirements Karen’s clients might have (it may be tough for an older dog to acclimate to an electric wheelchair, for example).
Karen also made the very interesting point that, while many service dogs are “off limits” to the public, she wants their dogs to be social butterflies. Some of her clients have disabilities that make it tough to socialize with other kids… but a dog can be a perfect bridge.
As Karen puts it, “We want people to pet our dogs. We want them to come up and start a conversation… Sometimes if [one of our kids] is on the playground, other kids will avoid them… but if you add a service dog to the equation, suddenly [that kid] is the person to be with.”
Dogs can also help other family members gain (or regain) a sense of independence, Karen says, since it’s easier to go out to public places as a family. Or, for example, parents in some of the families Karen works with haven’t slept in the same bed in 10 years because one of them has to sleep with the child in case he or she has a seizure. A dog can help alleviate many of these kinds of burdens.
I’m sure you get this question all the time, but what about cost?
Karen told us it takes about $40,000 to train and place a service dog. Understandably, most people can’t pay that. So, at 4 Paws for Ability (and many other service dog agencies), they give the dogs away for free.
They do their own fundraising, and they simply place as many dogs as they can with that money. Everyone else goes on a waiting list.
However, the families do help fundraise in their own communities, and because the families help with the fundraising, 4 Paws for Ability doesn’t have to have a really long waiting list like some other agencies.
And not having a super long waiting list is vitally important, according to Karen, since service dogs can literally save kids’ lives. They have plenty of clients who are alive today because of their dogs.
A few final words from Karen…
Even if you only have a couple of minutes, I highly recommend you at least listen to the last few minutes of our interview, where Karen talks about the crucially important societal role service dogs play.
Overall, I was very happy to interview Karen and learn more about the amazing things she and her team are doing at 4 Paws for Ability.
If you’d like to donate, you can do so here.