Raising the ‘woof’ for service dogs

Nonprofit breaks ground for new building

The demand for service dogs who help children navigate diseases is growing — so a local nonprofit that provides such dogs broke ground Thursday for a larger home.

The organization, 4 Paws for Ability, hopes to be in its $2.7 million, 13,000-square-foot home at 207 Dayton Ave. this time next year.

Clients from around the world are expected to come to Xenia seeking dogs who can help veterans or children with disabilities — children like nine-year-old Sophia Bigelow, of Lexington, Ky.

Sophia is suffering a neuro-degenerative disease that her mother, Heidi, fears will affect her vision and stability. The family will take Browser, a goldendoodle, home from 4 Paws today. Browser is expected to guide Sophia in coming years.

“He’s going to make her journey so much better than it would be otherwise,” said Sophia’s mother, Heidi.

Training the dogs to work with children with developmental disabilities, serious food allergies or other ailments is not cheap — at least $22,000, according to leaders of 4 Paws. Some 50 employees and more than 300 volunteers — including prison inmates and college students — work to teach the dogs.

With the exception of wounded veterans, prospective customers are expected to pay $14,000 for the dogs, an amount raised usually through community fundraising, said Kelly Camm, development director for 4 Paws. Heidi Bigelow said her family obtained the money through Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The organization has some 300 dogs in training now, not all of them on the Xenia site, Camm said. The organization will place about 117 service dogs with customers this year and needs to place more.

“We need to be well above that because of the demand for our service dogs,” Camm said.

Now, the dogs are too often kept in crates and not in “runs,” that allow the dogs to move more freely. The nonprofit also needs more room to work with prospective customers and more room for medical procedures, such as spaying and neutering.

“It will be big,” said Karen Shirk, 4 Paws executive director who founded the organization in her apartment 16 years ago. “And that’s nice.”

The new building will be adjacent to 4 Paws’ current home, a former Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, which will be renovated, said Tom Lempner, spokesman for Mason’s HiFive Development Services Inc., which is shepherding the project.

“The building they’re in now they have completely outgrown, and they’ve actually outgrown it for a quite a while,” Lempner said.

4 Paws has its own breeding program to develop disciplined dogs, although occasionally promising animals are found in shelters, Camm said. The organization starts training when the dogs are puppies, placing them with a child when they’re 12 to 18 months old, she said.

Once client families raise the expected $14,000, they are placed in a class to prepare them to take the animal home, Camm said.

Dogs can be trained for service but also for search-and-rescue work, she said. They can sometimes be found in local parks or mall engaged in “simulated tracks,” she said.

HiFive is also building the Christian Life Center in Vandalia and has built Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Lempner said.

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