PROFILE: PAWS FOR LOVE

Meah Sen has been a Paws for Love dog for over eight years. She’s had an amazing life and it all started because Cyndi Mitchell walked into a pet shelter ten years ago.

Cyndi was on a mission: to adopt an older dog as a companion. “I was looking, actually, for an older dog. One who wouldn’t be as easily adopted.” But as she talked with the worker at dog control, her plans quickly changed. “She was just a little tiny puppy and she’d been dumped by the side of the highway. But the person who was working there said that someone was coming in to get her, and they didn’t want them to have her. They’d had some problems with those people... and, well, I couldn’t let her go to a bad home. So, I filled out the paperwork, and she’s ended up being the best dog ever!”

Cyndi named her new friend Meah Sen, which means “my friend.” And Meah Sen quickly proved to be a friend, not just to her, but to her mother and father as well. “My mother had a brain tumor, and (before we even knew it) when we first got her, she was just a little puppy, and my mom would just hold her for hours, and she was just so calm. When you’d set her down, she’d tear around, of course, because she’s part Aussie and part Border Collie, but she’d be gentle when she needed to be.”

She just kept giving and giving: “My father had dementia, and she was just wonderful with him. He fell and broke his hip and he had to use a walker, but she’d be right there with him the whole time.”

And that was even before she was part of Paws for Love! “She was born to be a therapy dog. She’s just kind of always known what to do. The first time I took her to school, I had the kids sit in a semi-circle. I explained to them what a therapy dog was, and the kids were sharing their own stories about dogs. Then I took her around, one child at a time, to visit. The kids were all over her. And some kids were afraid of her, so she just turned around and didn’t even look at them. And she was not trained to do that. She knew to do that all on her own.”

Paws for Love is a non-profit organization that certifies dogs (and cats) as therapy animals. It was started in October 1999 by Patty Storkel and Laurie Jensens as part of Everything Pawsible because they saw a need for a community-based program that would provide trained dogs and handlers that would be suitable for various types of visitations. They left Everything Pawsible and became Paws for Love in October 2010.

Today, their certified therapy animals go into retirement homes, memory care centers, assisted living centers, and hospitals, as well as colleges and libraries, and preschools and elementary schools, where they work directly with children to assist them with reading.

In order to qualify as a Paws for Love animal, the dog, cat, or horse must each pass a vigorous process of training, but it’s not the same as the training a service dog gets: “A service dog is trained for one specific task, whereas our dogs are trained to help many people by visiting them (as a therapy dog). Service dogs might be trained to help somebody with vision impairment, or to detect seizures. Service dogs will be trained for one job, like that. Our dogs are trained in how to be quiet and calm so that people can visit with them and pet them. They have to be able to handle large crowds and to not be distracted by loud noises.

Paws for Love works with more than just dogs. They also work with cats and... miniature horses! A miniature horse has to be at least two years old to join the program, but a lucky dog or cat can start their training once they are a year old. If it’s a rescue dog, like Meah Sen, they have to be part of your family for at least six months before they can start working to become a Paws for Love dog. Before applying to Paws for Love, the animal must complete obedience training which includes The Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test (for dogs) or the Feline/Equine Good Citizen Test (for cats or horses). This makes sure that they will follow their handler’s commands and listen to them. They have to be able to meet another handler with their dog, cat, or horse and not be distracted. They have to be able to accept a friendly stranger, walk through a crowd, sit, stay, and come when commanded. They also have to able to follow directions when their handler is not there to look after them personally.

Once they’ve passed the test, the dog, cat, or horse must attend a workshop. It’s five hours long, and both the animal and the handler must be there the whole time. The workshop is tough, and they have to stay calm the entire time.

The handler also has to pass a written test that helps them learn what they need to do to keep their animal safe, what’s expected of the animal, and how to keep them clean and calm.
Once they’ve passed the written test, they must pass a difficult Certifiication test, and the handlers must demonstrate that they have a good working relationship with their dog, cat, or horse. This part is really a fun challenge since anything can happen. Someone might have a bag with food in it. There might be distracting smells or loud noises. Someone might start acting crazy, and start bothering the animal and handler to try to get the animal to act out. In order to pass, the animal has to stay focused and calm the whole time! The handler has to be on task to keep their animal safe and secure. So it’s a test for both of them!

The last step is that they must attend a visitation at a local approved medical facility and be supervised. This lets their supervisor see them in action and make sure that they can do what they need to do in the real world!

One of Meah Sen’s favorite things to do is spending time with kids as they read her books. Often, kids will read her books about her favorite topic: dogs!

The idea is simple: children are much more comfortable reading to a dog, because if they make a mistake, the dog is not going to correct them. It makes reading more fun, and it allows the young reader to learn from their mistakes on their own, without getting corrected all the time.

Today, she’s at the State Fair and she’s enjoying the story of Clifford, the Big Red Dog. She snuggles next to a girl as she sounds out the words one at a time. She may not look like she’s smiling, but Meah Sen is happy. She’s doing what she loves; it’s her life’s work and she’s not ready to quit yet!