By Krys Estes
A local organization that trains service dogs for veterans and the disabled received a boost last week when a government program that trains medical personnel for military service awarded it a grant of more than $100,000.
The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences for the Wounded Warriors service dog program awarded the grant to paws4people, a Wilmington-based organization that trains dogs to help people with visual or hearing impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical conditions.
The Points of Light Foundation, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, also recognized the founder and CEO of paws4people, 28-year-old Kyria Henry, with its daily Point of Light award to recognize the 16 years of work she has put into the organization.
Henry’s work training dogs started when she was only 12 years old, and since then, she has built an organization that has placed 300 assistance dogs to help people in areas such as social therapy, mobility, psychiatric service and educational and rehabilitative assistance. Since her first days training dogs, Henry has built the program to include locations throughout the mid-Atlantic and a training program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“The most impactful thing is not what I’ve accomplished, but what we have accomplished,” Henry said. “With this whole team I have been lucky to have, clients will look at us and say that we save lives and that they wouldn’t have chosen to stay in this lifetime if not for their dog.”
Henry says paws4people’s service dogs are able to reduce client symptoms and allow clients to start finding ways to enjoy life again while reconnecting with their families.
“That’s our goal: how much can we do, how big can we get, how many people can we help?” Henry said. “We get so many applications, right now, we place about one dog for every 90 applications that we get. I’ll never be done setting goals until we conquer that number.”
Henry started paws4people in 1999, at the age of 12, when by default she had to train her childhood Labrador retriever in order to keep the puppy per her parents’ request.
“Once he was trained, I could take him to all kinds of places,” Henry says. “It was simple to me, making other people happy with the use of my dog. I feel like it’s what I was meant to do because it’s not something I had ever planned out and anything that I wrote out as a dream; it just has taken on a life of its own. I’m just lucky that way.”
The paws4people puppies come at the age of three weeks from a personal in-house breeder located in Hampstead, North Carolina, as well as donations from specific bloodlines at eight weeks old. A small number of the dogs are also rescue dogs, saving them from being euthanized.
Henry says they specifically acquire golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers because they have the kind of temperament and disposition required for this particular kind of program: enough drive and work ethic, but not too much energy or innate drive.
“They have been bred to do the job we want done here with our service dogs; but we do have a lot of different breeds as well,” Henry says.
The recipients of the service dogs are generally children or adolescents with disabilities and veterans with physical limitations, post-traumatic stress disorders, traumatic brain injuries, hearing loss, seizures or other medical conditions.
Henry says paws4people is always considering new clients. She also teaches a 12-credit dog training certification program at UNCW, the first and only program of its kind in the nation.
“[This program is] very novel, unique, and outside-of-the-box,” Henry said. “It started off small and now there’s a wait list. I would love to see students on other campuses have the same opportunity.”
Henry has plans to expand paws4people into a bigger facility that will enable the organization to train more dogs and bring all of its operations together in one place.