We’ve all seen the videos on social media: dogs who do good deeds, who help their humans in time of need or are just there to put a smile on someone’s face. They’ve also proven to be helpful with disabled children and adults – and one such nonprofit, located just up the road in Scottsdale, aims to help.
The idea for Power Paws began in August 2001, as a volunteer project for the Abels – a Scottsdale family who fostered a canine for another local nonprofit. After that, the project became a passion for daughter Shoshanna Abel, and Power Paws was created.
The nonprofit “provides highly skilled assistance dogs to help disabled children and adults manage challenges with mobility, Type I Diabetes, and PTSD.” They also train dogs that work with professionals who serve survivors of sexual or domestic abuse. Power Paws is one of only two Arizona accredited agencies by Assistance Dogs International to train service dogs for the disabled.
Executive Director Elaine Starks got her start at Power Paws in 2014, when she was hired as the development officer.
“My youngest brother James was an independent contractor for disabled children,” Starks said. “He suggested I look at a role supporting the disabled. It took 12 years, as I watched how he expanded the activities for the kids he served.”
Starks and her brother started with Gompers – a disability service and support organization in Phoenix – to help build Arizona’s first accessible playground and garden to share with other agencies supporting kids in the disability community.
“Just six months prior [to my starting at Power Paws], James lost his battle with pre-existing conditions, and my initial thought was, ‘I wish James had had a Power Paws dog,’” Starks said.
She explained that the dogs are trained over 16 months and attend class twice a week to see if they have the right temperament and work ethic to be placed into service. Volunteers foster the dogs, train them and reinforce cues at home. They are then matched with the right client based on the client’s personality and needs.
“As executive director, you are often the first person to hear the benefits of Power Paws dogs,” Starks said. “Those are the moments that make my day.”
Stark recounts one case with a child who had mobility challenges and was also diagnosed as nonverbal. “Within one week of placement, her first word was the dog’s name. Within a month, she was speaking in short sentences, and now she has full-blown conversations. Her dog now attends all medical appointments with her. After three years, she is moving to become an independent handler for her dog.”
Volunteers who work at the nonprofit must attend an accredited apprentice program at a school where education extends to specialized veterinary medicine. Starks explained that it takes about four years for a person to be trained in the industry.
“It takes three years of training through an apprenticeship program with a least one year of practical work experience,” she said. “The two-part process educates students about the industry and various experiences in training dogs. Then students learn to work and train individuals with disabilities.”
Starks explained that the most challenging part about running a nonprofit is creating a robust volunteer program. She said that recruiting and training the right volunteers is also challenging, but the benefits outweigh any problematic aspects.
Power Paws also offers a couple of kid programs: a reading program for Title 1 students and a summer camp.
“Hearing teachers report on the academic benefits to the students, and the kids’ excitement of summer camp as the activities roll out and when they have fun with the dogs, is a great feeling,” Starks said.
Summer camp consists of two-week sessions where kids learn about the importance of service dogs and how each person has “different abilities.” Each day starts with Dogyoga (yoga with dogs), then basic obedience classes for dogs, making treats and forming a “Writer’s Club” to create short stories. They are in the process of developing a virtual program for summer 2021.
“Our dogs truly empower people for independent living by removing the barriers and challenges of a disability,” Starks said. “But we could not do our work without the support of our community. The return on their investment of time or a donation is priceless in the lives of those we serve.”