The charity in St Paul, Minnesota, identifies suitable shelter dogs and prepares their future humans for a life together. Pawsitivity really changes lives, and Susie Kearley has found out more for Wunderdog. Picture: Lisa Venticinque.
Pawsitivity in Minnesota: rescue dogs get trained help veterans and people with disabilities
Frannie has panic attacks, a lot. But then Lexi came along, thanks to Pawsitivity. “My service dog has helped me a lot in the middle of my panic attacks,” Frannie says. “I would scream, cry, and sometimes hurt myself.
“My parents couldn’t do anything without a risk of getting hurt. It’s not like they could sit on me and stop me from doing anything, but my service dog can. I’ll start petting her and focusing all of my energy on her rather than directing it at myself, which makes feeling anxiety attacks a lot easier. They don’t last quite as long. She’s really helping.”
Pawsitivity is a charity located in the US state of Minnesota that rescues dogs and trains them as service dogs. The beneficiaries include veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, people with multiple disabilities, and children with autism.
The dogs provide support and companionship. They are trained to help each individual with their own unique set of challenges, and they boost people’s feelings of independence, giving them the confidence to live the lives they want.
Tom and Julie Coleman (pictured above) run the charity and are accomplished dog trainers. They work alongside a team of volunteers. Julie spends most of her time on the dog-training side, while Tom works with families who receive the dogs.
During a Zoom call with Tom he tells me about the dog selection process: “Our dogs originally come from rescue centres, shelters, and breeders. We have connections to lots of these places, and the dogs go through a series of tests as part of the selection process.”
I ask him what these tests are. “We look at how they behave in different situations. For example, if we throw a ball, do they fetch it or do they run away, afraid? If a stranger approaches, are they afraid? We go through these different tests, looking for confident dogs that aren’t hyperactive or aggressive. If someone accidentally steps on their foot, they need to be chill about it and not react badly. They need to be gentle and easy-going.”
Temperament is important. “One in 1,000 dogs is appropriate,” Tom continues. “Every breed is bred for a specific purpose. Huskies are great for pulling things, for example, but they’re not so great for helping blind people, precisely because they pull too much!
“The best breeds for our work tend to be Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. They’re bred to pay attention and not be stubborn. But the breed is a tiny part of the whole assessment. A lot of dogs are high-energy. We’re actually looking for mellow, low-energy dogs.
“The vast majority of rescues start off great, but if they’re afraid of elevators, for instance, and we can’t get beyond that, they have a ‘career change’ and become a pet instead.
“It’s disappointing because we’ve put all that effort into training them, but we do the rehoming for these dogs, and because we know them really well by this stage, we’re able to pair them with the best owners. So, we find them great homes because we want super-happy dogs, with super-happy owners!”
The training programme
The Pawsitivity training programme has four stages. “First, they learn the real basics, including manners, not jumping up, peeing outside, etc. Then, they learn ‘sit’, ‘down’ and ‘heel’. Next, they learn to behave appropriately when going out in public, for example, how to deal with things like crowds, manhole covers, and being around people and buses.
“Finally, we pick a veteran or family who we feel would be a good match for the dog and we test them to ensure they are indeed, well matched!
“We offer lifetime support for the dog and the veteran once the dog has graduated. The dogs are well trained, but we have to train the veteran, too. We work with positive reinforcement and the dogs love their training.”
Every veteran has different needs, so once a dog and veteran have been matched, the training programme follows a very specific path to meet the veteran’s individual needs.
“We teach a task,” explains Tom. “For example, if the veteran is deaf, the dog will be trained to alert them if the fire alarm goes off. If the person has PTSD, the dog will alert the veteran to a rise in their anxiety, so they are reminded to take preventative action.
“PTSD is a major problem among veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The dog alerts the veteran to an impending panic attack at level 2 or 3 of the rising anxiety, so they can stop it from reaching level 10. The veteran can then do breathing exercises or take themselves out of the situation before reaching a crisis point.”
Tom tells me about Peter Bannon, a veteran on disability benefits who struggled with crowds and people coming up behind him. These experiences set off Peter’s fear centre, the amygdala in his brain. It was as if bombs were going off in his mind, and this could lead to a panic attack.
“‘Cover my 6’ is a military term,” says Tom, “meaning someone’s covering your back. His dog was trained to ‘cover my 6’ – walk behind him to prevent crowding or someone coming up behind him. For the first time in years, the dog enabled Peter to go out in crowds.”
Dogs can help veterans with epilepsy too, and I wonder if this was a common risk of war.
“Epilepsy can be a result of traumatic brain injury,” explains Tom, “and many dogs can sense an imminent attack up to 20 minutes before it happens. Researchers hypothesise that they can smell something on the breath; whether they can smell hormonal changes or see mini-tremors, the dogs can detect it and alert the veteran so they can get to a safe place before the seizure happens.”
Veterans who have children with disabilities have also received service dogs for their kids. In particular, some children with autism “elope”, Tom explains. This means they run off, and that can be dangerous if they’re heading toward traffic.
“So, the child is tethered to the dog, and the parent controls the dog,” Tom says. “When the child starts to elope, they only get a metre away because of the tether. The child loves the dog, so doesn’t mind being tethered to it.”
This is far preferable to the child being restrained by mum with reins because there’s no power dynamic with the dog.
Tom and Julie decided to start a fundraiser to help animals suffering from the war in Ukraine. Pawsitivity’s donations are going to volunteers who are giving away dog food to citizens left behind in Kiev, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, and the Poltava and Kherson regions. The money also funds vets and impromptu animal hospitals set up wherever needed.
“It’s made a huge difference,” says Tom. “A lot of people have stayed in Ukraine because they don’t want to leave their pets, and others have taken their pets with them.”
But there are still animals needing help. The money helps pets in Ukraine facing homelessness, or risk of starvation or dehydration, and provides veterinary care for those injured by war. Pawsitivity never shies away from dogs and humans in need.