The years after Meredith McCumbee brought her infant Ethiopian son Aaron back to Wilmington were spent in and out of hospitals as Aaron struggled with speech apraxia, a condition that inhibits his ability to talk. Then, when Aaron was 5, a four-legged addition to the McCumbee family changed their lives.
They received a golden retriever named Hattie from paws4people, a local 501(c)(3) public charity that trains service dogs to assist people with a variety of needs. The organization’s goal is to transform lives — both of individuals like Aaron McCumbee and, soon, hundreds of children at Pine Valley Elementary School.
For Aaron McCumbee, Hattie is both a comforting presence and an intuitive guardian. When he’s anxious, she lies on top of him to soothe him with deep pressure. She makes him laugh. And she alerts Aaron’s mother when she senses something that could trigger a meltdown.
With that ability, Hattie has eased Aaron’s stress and his mother’s, too. She balances caring for her son with a full-time job, working from home so she can respond when her son calls. But now, her son calls for Hattie.
“Those first days when he started asking for her, I just smiled, because he had realized she was this constant in his life — she wasn’t going anywhere,” McCumbee said. “I can’t imagine her not being around. I don’t remember what it was like before we had her.”
McCumbee also found herself the unsuspecting beneficiary of Hattie’s anxiety-reducing abilities.
“Hattie can pick up on my stress, and she’s lowered my stress level,” McCumbee said. “I tell my husband all the time, ‘I love this dog like she’s one of my kids.’”
Hattie’s natural fit with the McCumbee family is no fluke. Paws4people assesses each puppy’s personality to determine what type of service it should perform. After two years of training, the dog is ready to be placed with its client.
A classroom dog that helps children to read has a different personality than one that assists a veteran with PTSD, paws4people CEO Kyria Henry explained. Just like humans, dogs can learn many skills, but people have to pick what they love to do, and dogs are the same way, she explained.
“We want to make sure the dogs get a job where they don’t think it’s a job,” she said.
One of paws4people’s other 165 dogs in training, a golden retriever named Palmer, has a mellow personality, making her a good fit to work with groups of small children. If she completes her training this spring, she will earn a job in the fall at Pine Valley Elementary School.
Although Henry has implemented service dogs in Virginia schools where she lived previously, Pine Valley is the first New Hanover County school to receive a service dog. Initially, Palmer will help the school launch R.E.A.D., a national curriculum in which children improve their literacy by reading to dogs. The program’s data shows reading to a non-judgmental creature like a dog boosts literacy and communication skills, Henry said.
But Henry expects the school will find other uses for Palmer, too — schools in Virginia have used service dogs to help students with behavior modification, physical therapy and to overcome dog phobias.
“I think if you talk to them a year from now they’ll have figured out 100 ways they can implement the dog,” she said. “It’s like having the biggest piece of candy reward for students ever, and just thinking about how you’re going to use it.”
Palmer will go home every day with fifth-grade teacher Mark McCann, who originally proposed the idea of a service dog at Pine Valley. He learned about the program on a class field trip to UNCW, where paws4people has a dog-training curriculum.
In the program, UNCW students work with paws4people dogs to prepare them to be service animals. The students learn selflessness and responsibility, Henry said, because for two semesters they care for the dogs only to give them up to help a person in need.
The dogs pass into the students’ care having already learned extensive commands in an inmate rehabilitation program called paws4prisons. Transforming lives is the goal of paws4people, McCann observed, but “it’s not just one person that goes through that transformation.”
Three UNCW students, including senior Cody Petree, are in charge of Palmer this semester. They are currently going through a process called umbilical cording, Petree said, in which Palmer is on a leash with one of them at all times, even indoors.
“She follows me everywhere,” Petree said. “She’s staring at me and hearing my voice for four or five days straight.”
If Petree wants to go somewhere dogs aren’t allowed, he has to arrange for another student in the program to watch her.
“It’s kind of like having a child and getting a babysitter,” Henry said.
At the end of this semester, if Palmer passes her training, Petree will turn her over to McCann and hundreds of elementary school students. The first time Petree dropped Palmer off with another UNCW student, the dog tried to follow him out the door. Parting after an entire semester of bonding will be even harder, but it might not be a permanent separation.
McCann said he hopes Petree can come visit Palmer at Pine Valley so the UNCW student can see her take on the job for which he helped train her. She appeared ready for her new job Jan. 29 when Petree brought her to McCann’s classroom for the first time. Within minutes, the golden retriever was sprawled on the floor as McCann’s 6-year-old son Ryder leaned on her fuzzy belly.
McCann, Petree and Henry looked on, marveling at how naturally Palmer inhabited her future role.
“She’s not going to think she’s working a day in her life,” Henry said. “That’s how you know you put the right piece of the puzzle in the right place.”