Dogs are amazing animals.
They can be trained to do tricks and fetch. They can help people who are blind and assist police officers sniff out drugs and track down suspects.
They can alert people who are diabetic or have cancer or other health conditions. They can also tell when humans are upset or stressed.
The latter is one reason why they serve as great service animals for veterans and first responders.
Paws-Ability Inc. is one such organization that helps pair those people with four-legged companions that help them overcome their troubles and get through everyday life.
Founded in 2019 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization by Jim Day, John Wells and Natalie Faudree, the goal is to transform the lives of military veterans, first responders and correctional officers with a program that provides trained service dog companions.
Day is a Vietnam Army veteran who lives in Bloomington, Wells is a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran living in Louisville, Kentucky, and Faudree of Indianapolis is the wife of Joseph Faudree, a Marine Corps veteran. Day and Wells are co-chairmen of the Paws-Ability board, and Faudree is secretary.
Both men have their own service dog — Day with Samson and Wells with Cash. They became acquainted while serving on the board of another organization that pairs service dogs with veterans.
Wells, who started as a U.S. Navy corpsman and later served with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam, said they thought it was unacceptable the board didn’t have a veteran on it, so they left and started Paws-Ability.
“We decided to start with Natalie pushing us,” Wells said. “Jim and I put it together, started it and we tried to do it without getting a nonprofit status, but I had nothing to give to these people wanting to donate money. That’s the only way to do it.”
The organization depends on donations to provide service dogs with little to no cost to veterans and first responders that have sacrificed for their country and community, according to pawsability.org.
If organizations like Paws-Ability didn’t exist, Wells said it could cost $20,000 to $60,000 for a person to get a trained service dog.
Many of Paws-Ability’s service dogs are donated American Kennel Club-certified Labrador retriever puppies or are rescue dogs that have been evaluated as being suitable for service dog work.
The organization partners with A Dog on Prison Turf at the Madison Correctional Facility in Madison for the initial manners and obedience training for the dogs. This program has proven to be successful for the inmates who care and work with them and for the animals that are receiving their constant attention.
“That’s a six-week training course they put them through,” Wells said. “There are two inmates on each dog, and they train them 24/7.”
Once the training is complete, the dogs are partnered with their forever companion, and the training to be certified begins.
Wells said a person is interviewed by a board to determine the need for a service dog and how it would help them, and his or her home is inspected to ensure it’s adequate for a dog.
“Jim and I are pretty good at knowing what the needs are in picking the right person for the dog,” Wells said.
According to pawsability.org, 20 service dogs have been awarded to people, most of whom live in the area.
“We try to stay around this area, but we want to help the guys,” Wells said. “We want to get them a dog and get them out there to a normal life.”
You could qualify for a service dog if you served the country in the U.S. military or are a first responder (law enforcement, firefighter, emergency medical services, 911 operator or correctional officer). Also, if you suffer from a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or mobility issues.
Wells obtained Cash several years ago after being diagnosed with PTSD.
“I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until 1998,” he said. “I had been married twice in the ’70s and divorced twice. I didn’t know what was going on until PTSD became more noted.”
He said he had nightmares and didn’t how to deal with it until he worked with a psychiatrist and a PTSD specialist with Veterans Affairs. That’s when they diagnosed him with PTSD.
In 2015, Cash became a part of his life. He was asked to talk to a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and one of the men had a service dog.
“I kept looking at the dog and seeing how much calmer that (the man) was with the dog around,” Wells said. “He knew that I was going through the PTSD stuff. He asked me if I wanted a dog, and he knew somebody that was starting up an organization, Dogs Helping Heroes, David Benson, and I said, ‘Yes.’ I just saw how much (the dog) did for (the man). It was just a no-brainer for me.”
Cash was the first dog awarded through the organization. It didn’t take long for Wells to see the impact of the service dog on his life.
“After getting Cash, I just noticed instead of going home and sitting in the corner all day, how much just taking care of him I had to get out,” he said.
He promised Benson when he received the dog that he would give back, so he and Cash participated in presentations to promote service dogs.
“Whenever he needed somebody to go out on a presentation, Cash and I were there,” Wells said.
Today, he’s still giving back by helping pair dogs with people who need them through Paws-Ability.
While the organization has gifted several dogs since 2019, Wells said the need right now is applicants.”
“That’s a big hurdle for some guy to say, ‘I need help,’” he said.
Paws-Ability now has three dog trainers, including Shannon Neal of Brownstown, who are assisting once dogs are paired with a veteran, a first responder or a correctional officer.
For about nine years, Neal has operated Skyline Drive Kennels, breeding mostly Labs. In January, she saw a post by Faudree on Facebook asking if anyone had a dog to rehome.
Neal messaged her and learned about her involvement with Paws-Ability.
“I have wanted to donate a pup to a veteran for the same type of thing, but we didn’t know anybody to do it through, so I had sent her a message on Facebook and we ended up chatting on the phone,” Neal said. “I had told her my background and my training and experience and stuff, and I said, ‘I honestly would love to be a part of the organization and help people around here if you have people around here in need.’”
Neal has been shadowing one of the other trainers who is assisting a veteran in his 80s who lives in Jeffersonville and received a dog from Paws-Ability.
They work with the duo to get the dog ready for its public access test.
“Right now, he’s really working on getting his dog to focus attention on him when we’re out in public and not focusing on other things to get him excited,” Neal said. “It just takes time with the handler and the dog getting that experience and understanding. It’s nice to have that third person that kind of knows a little bit what to do. I like being able to help out.”
Neal said it’s interesting to interact with a dog to see if it’s right for a program like Paws-Ability.
“With pups, like a new litter, you just look at their trainability,” she said. “Are they easy? Do they listen? Do they pay attention to you? Do they give you eye contact? Are they willing to work and just learn?”
From there, she said you just mold and shape them.
“The main thing is they have to be super under control. They have to listen and want to learn,” she said. “They can’t be aggressive in any way, so if they would be aggressive with another dog or another person, it’s not going to happen. … A lot of that stuff doesn’t show up until they reach sexual maturity.”
In the end, Neal said to be considered a service dog, a dog has to have specific tasks it performs for the handler, whether it’s providing stability while moving or peace of mind while out in public or retrieving specific items.
Later on, since she has her own breeding program, Neal said she would like to train her pups and donate them to the organization.
“That’s kind of my forte is the babies. I love doing that, and I can do that at home. That lets me help and do things from my world,” she said. “I would love it if the organization grew enough to where we could incorporate that as a part of it. That’s a long way away, but even if I can just donate a pup once a year or a couple pups, something like that, then I hope I can do that.”
She also wants to continue being hands-on with training.
“ I just like to help people,” Neal said. “My husband loves to hunt and go out and be in the woods and do food plots. I like to work with dogs and help people.”
Wells is excited about what’s to come, too.“
We’re just absolutely passionate about getting this going — all of us,” he said.
At a glance
Paws-Ability Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that depends greatly on donations to provide service dogs of exceptional quality with little to no cost to veterans and first responders that have sacrificed for their country and community.
Donations may be mailed to Paws-Ability Inc., P.O. Box 7715, Louisville, KY 40257. Make check payable to Paws-Ability Inc.Anyone in Jackson County or the area may reach out to Shannon Neal of Brownstown at 812-528-1549.