Marilyn Boes and her service dog Argon made a visit to the Rockford Community Cabin for the Rockford Historical Society’s meeting Thursday, February 4. She shared not just the history of Paws with a Cause, but her own story and that of Argon, her service dog, who performed some tasks at her request.
The program actually was started here in West Michigan, although Paws with a Cause dogs are now throughout the continental U.S. and even in Hawaii and Alaska.
Boes said in the late 70s, the founder of the organization was a man who trained Dobermans. He had next door neighbors who were hearing impaired and they asked if he would train the family terrier, Crystal, for them to listen for doorbells and other sounds. First called Ears for the Deaf, the service dog program began.
The organization began to gain momentum when a generous benefactor donated a building in Grand Rapids where 100 kennels were built. At that time the dogs were all trained for hearing impaired people, but Boes said word of mouth created an increasing demand for the animals.
Boes said Paws used to acquire animals from local humane Societies when staffers decided an animal would be a good fit for the program. Now they mostly use their own breeding dogs, golden retrievers, black and yellow labs and only a few chocolate labs, who just don’t seem to have the brains for the training required, Boes said.
Paws has 25 trainers on staff and 150 employees in 35 states. Dogs are all raised by foster families, who rear the animals to be very familiar with many different situations and pay for all the costs incurred during the puppy’s early life, including spaying or neutering. “Some people have done this nine times in a row,” said Boes, who called these people heroes.
After a year of living in the foster home, the dog returns to Paws for training, and begins with a four to six-week boot camp reviewing basic commands. The three-phase training follows basic commands with learning to pick up items before the dog is chosen for a particular individual and learns skills specific to that person’s needs.
Boes said that once an individual has been selected to receive a dog, their needs are reviewed, including in-home visits to determine what skills the dog will need. After filing an application, a dog may be selected quickly, or as long as a year may pass before a suitable dog becomes available.
In a wheelchair herself, Boes said she put off applying for a dog, even though she worked at Paws. “I didn’t want to accept that I needed one,” she said.
Suffering from a degenerative disease, Boes said she put off taking a dog as long as possible before she partnered up with Argon. Once she saw him in the kennel, she felt a bond and knew she had to have him. Shortly after bringing Argon home, Boes struck her head badly and was bleeding heavily. Argon brought her a phone and she was able to call for aid. Her doctor told her if she hadn’t had the phone and had waited for help she would likely have bled to death.
Despite the value of these animals—in Boes case, lifesaving—dogs are occasionally returned. If a dog is returned twice, the organization does not try to place them again, but instead gives them to another organization, such as the border patrol, airports, police agencies or other groups that use dogs.
Boes said dogs don’t all perform the same tasks, but all know basic skills, such as answering the phone and pushing elevator buttons. She had Argon pick up a dime and other objects off the floor of the Community Cabin as well as perform other tasks. She said the assistance dogs are never asked to pick up pennies because the copper is poisonous to them.