By Michael Lea, Kingston Whig-Standard, Monday, April 18, 2016
It started out as a way to fill a need.
It was more than a decade ago when Samantha Knapp tried to find a service dog to help her two special needs children. They had seizures and she had heard that specially trained dogs could actually warn you when a seizure was about to occur.
But she soon discovered none of the existing service dog organizations covered this area. They were mostly based in southwestern Ontario and you would have to travel there on a regular basis if you wanted to be assigned one of their dogs.
“That is really difficult for families,” she said. It would mean time off work, expenses for lodging and food
“It is often a hardship and it is also very difficult if you have a child that has disabilities.” Knapp decided to eliminate the middle man and train her own dog to alert her when one of her children was having a seizure.
“So I went back to school, got all of my credentials to actually train these dogs.”
She helped train other people’s dogs, as well as her own, over the next 13 years, but it wasn’t until she went to a breeder to replace her original service dog that she met up with Elizabeth Bailey. Bailey had been raising dogs for service dog organizations and was just as frustrated as Knapp that there was nothing local.
“People were stopping her and saying: ‘Hey, how do I get a dog?’” Knapp said. “She would have to say: ‘Sorry, but they don’t service this area.’ Kingston has been left out in this industry because of the location all the other schools are at.”
They discussed the problem and came up with their own solution.
“We both have the skills to do this. Why are we not doing this?” Knapp had asked at the time. So they pooled their abilities and founded Kingston 4 Paws Service Dogs.
“We are the only organization that does this area.” They cover from Trenton to Ottawa, although they have also gone further afield. They have dogs in Niagara Falls and Thorold.
“We call ourselves small and mighty. We might be a small organization, but we really get the stuff done,” Knapp said.
They raise, train and place service dogs with local individuals and families who need the dogs to help them deal with conditions that could range from autism to post-traumatic stress disorder, from seizures to mobility and mental health issues.
The one condition they don’t cover is blindness. They leave that to the guide dogs organization.
“The nice thing about being local is that the families that need the dogs can be part of the training. They can come to the classes and they can learn,” Knapp explained. Each dog is trained for a specific person.
“If a person has mobility issues and seizures, we are not making them choose what kind of dog they need. We are training the dog for both, which is very unique.” That means they have to get to know their customers well. A potential client fills out an application, including a doctor’s letter to confirm the need for a service dog, and three personal references. A home visit is then made to ensure it will be a good environment for the dog.
“We have to make sure it is a good family for the dog. Our dogs are very important,” Knapp said.
The person then goes on a waiting list. It can be 18 to 24 months before they get their dog, since it has to be trained for their specific needs. There are currently 14 people on the approved wait list. During that time, they are asked to learn about the training, come to class to be part of it, and do some fundraising to cover some of the costs.
The client goes through as much training as the dog, Knapp said. “We are also people trainers.”
They also stay in touch after the dog is placed.
Knapp said they have an “amazing” group of volunteers that help raise the puppies. At 16 months, they bring them for advanced training.
Knapp and Bailey also keep dogs in their home, but there are 23 dogs in the program right now “and there is no way we could have 23 dogs in our home.” They don’t have their own kennel, since they prefer to have the dogs live in a home environment. “It really takes a village for this organization to work, it really does.”
They operate 365 days a year, whenever they are needed.
The organization was recognized for its work by the city when it was given the 2014 International Day of Persons with Disabilities Access Award.
Kingston 4 Paws Service Dogs uses several different breeders, five for labradors and one for the standard poodles they place with anyone with allergies. Knapp admitted labs are her favourites. “They are fantastic, so quick to learn.” They are resilient to change and aren’t stressed when they move to a new home. As long as someone feeds and plays with them, they are happy.
Of the 23 dogs currently in the program, five are poodles and the rest are labs.
Knapp usually has three dogs in her own home.
She is currently training an 11-month-old labrador named Bayou as a seizure dog. It is being taught to go get help when a seizure is occurring and then lie with the person to comfort them. Since Knapp has two kids with seizures, Bayou is learning on the job. The dog has already responded twice to a seizure and has started giving 30 seconds notice when one is about to occur. That is particularly important so the person can be placed in a safe location. She gets rewarded with cheese.
They placed their first dog in 2014 and another six followed. Just last week a man with PTSD got his dog. “His life changed within 12 hours,” Knapp said. He is happier now and is going out without his caregiver. “This is why we do it,” Knapp said.
Placing a dog in a home is always an emotional moment. “There are always tears from all of us,” Knapp said. “For some people, this is their last straw. They have tried therapy, they have tried meds, they have tried everything. Then they hear about the dog and they apply. If they are approved and they get a dog, it is life-changing for them.” Some can even go off some or all of their prescription medications. “They don’t need their meds anymore.”
The dogs are allowed full access in society and can go on planes, buses and in stores, “so they don’t have to go anywhere without their dog,” Knapp said. They provide an incentive to people suffering from depression, helping them get up in the morning when they would otherwise stay in bed. The dogs are also a source of comfort to those with PTSD, their protective presence getting them through the flashbacks or disassociation that can come with the condition.
Giving up a dog they have trained for so long can be hard, particularly for the foster families that have looked after them. “We always cry. We have broken the hearts of some of our fosters, but they understand. When you see what that dog is doing for that person, it’s worth it. We have 23 dogs that will help 23 families,” Knapp said.
“There are a lot of tears, happy and sad, with this job. And I do have to say it is probably one of the best jobs in the world. You are helping people. This is my way of giving back to the community and getting these dogs to these families so they have hope.”
Since Kingston 4 Paws Service Dogs is a registered charity and gets no government funding, it relies on fundraising and donations to keep going. Buying, training and placing a dog can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $25,000, Knapp said. The organization maintains ownership of the dogs and gives them to the families, who are asked to do at least some fundraising to help defray the costs.
“We can’t charge for the dog and we never would because the family needs the dog. Money shouldn’t be a reason why they wouldn’t get one.” The families are asked to pay for the dog’s food and veterinary bills, estimated at about $2,000 a year. Often, they continue to fundraise to give back to the organization.
To help with the costs of the program, they are holding a charity auction later this month. “We are asking the community to help us out one day a year,” Knapp said. “This auction is really important because we don’t get government funding. We need the funds because these dogs cost us a lot.”
The auction will be held Saturday, April 23, at the Vimy Officers’ Mess at Canadian Forces Base Kingston, running from 2 to 5 p.m. It is the first time the organization has held such an event.
Items going on the block during the live and silent auctions include a barbecue, pottery, house-care items, golf rounds, sports memorabilia, car-care items, carvings, a wine tour, paintings, artwork and gift certificates.
To purchase tickets for the event, go online to charityauction.k4paws.ca.