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Fluffy friends give puppy love to disabled

By Ellen Hancock
On April 1, 2014

What can be found all over Miami that is fluffy, friendly and worth more than $22,000? The answer: the in-training 4 Paws for Ability service dogs that are being fostered by Miami students.

4 Paws is a nonprofit organization that allows Miami students to foster future service dogs with the goal of orienting the dogs to the distractions and social aspects of accompanying someone throughout his or her daily life.

Fosters are responsible for caring for the dogs and teaching them how to act in busy environments. The dogs go with the foster to class, the library, dinner and anywhere else the student may need to go. According to organization vice president Kristyn Lind, once the semester-long fostering program is over, these dogs are then placed in specialized training programs and eventually are matched with a child in need.

4 Paws was brought to Miami by current president Kristin McNamara and when they fostered Miami's first dog in 2012. Since then the organization has quickly grown and now there are currently eight dogs being fostered on Miami's campus. Lind said 4 Paws chooses several different breeds.

"Right now at Miami we have six golden lab mixes that are all from the same litter and also for the first time we have two papillons as well," she said. "The golden labs are good because of how friendly they are and the Papillons are usually chosen because of how small they are."

Once through the foster system, these dogs will go on to specialized training before being given to a child. Another foster from 4 Paws, Rebecca Phillips, described the different types of services the dogs can be trained for.

"Usually the dogs are placed with kids with autism or diabetes," Phillips said. "If a child has autism and wanders off or self harms then the dogs can be trained to bring the kid back or provide a distraction. Sometimes, though, the dogs will go to veterans with PTSD."

Phillips also spoke about the perks of the different breeds of dogs brought to Miami's campus.

"The small dogs are more often used for seizure detection and allergen detection," Phillips said. "While the bigger dogs can do these tasks as well, they are also used for mobility assistance. Dogs are also placed based on their talents. For example if a dog has a particularly good sense of smell they'll probably be placed in allergy detection over mobility assistance no matter their size."

When it comes time for a dog to be matched with a child, factors other than talent and size are considered.

"They also match dogs and kids based on personality," Philips said. "For example they wouldn't match a really hyper dog with a really low-key kid. They try to match personalities."

While taking care of a dog full time requires a lot of time and effort, first-time foster junior Kate Stein said all the effort she puts in is well worth it.

"I've only been a foster for a month or two now," Stein said. "I really think that 4 Paws is an incredible organization as a whole and that it provides invaluable tools for children in need."

Invaluable is right. After training, each service dog is worth about $22,000, Phillips said.

"Each family is responsible for fundraising half of the money for the dog and then 4 Paws donates the other half," Philips said. "Recently we've been fundraising to help build a new building for the national 4 Paws center, but sometimes we go to the website and pick a child who is fundraising for their dog and we fundraise for that kid."

Students who want to get involved can find 4 Paws on The Hub. In order to foster a dog for a semester, students must be juniors or seniors living off campus, but there are still plenty of ways to get involved as a general member. Phillips said all the work pays off in the end.

"When you go to the dog's training graduation and see the children with their new service dogs, even if one of your dogs isn't graduating, I still get choked up," Phillips said. "Seeing the kids with their new dogs makes you realize that all of your time and energy was worth it because you really were able to make a difference."

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