Born only eight days before, the whimpering, murmuring golden retrievers snuggled and squirmed on a blanket.
With eyes still mostly closed and legs not yet strong enough to walk, the 11 tiny puppies nuzzled helplessly about, searching for the warm presence of their mother.
Soon, she was there, hovering over them. Faith, who will turn 4 years old in May, lay down on the blanket, drawing the entire litter to her side.
Kim Pape, Faith's caretaker, marveled at the dog's instincts as a mother.
"She's a very good mom," Pape said. "She takes really good care of them. She makes sure they're not wanting for anything within reason."
Faith and the puppies will stay at Pape's home in Sumner Center Township for eight weeks. Then the puppies will begin training to become service dogs for Helping Paws, a Minnesota organization that provides dogs to people with disabilities other than blindness or deafness.
Each pup will spend 2 1/2 years with an approved foster home trainer, learning a wide variety of skills to help the disabled. The dogs are taught to retrieve items and to open and close cupboards, dresser drawers, bathroom doors and closet doors. Dogs also learn to turn light switches on and off and help individuals get up from the floor or a chair.
People in wheelchairs need help with things that able-bodied people often take for granted, Pape said.
"If a person in a wheelchair drops a pen, the dog will pick up the pen for the person," she said. "They learn how to go to get help for a person. They go to the closest person and bring them back."
While staying with their foster home trainers, the dogs attend formal classes once a week and take part in daily training activities. Each dog is evaluated according to skill level, manners and public behavior.
The dogs are expected to complete four levels of training, including:
Perfect Puppies: Focuses on socialization, obedience training and walking on a leash.
Awesome Adolescents: Continues with basic skills training and begins with "service dog" skills.
Working Wonders: Dogs build on previous skills and begin to learn how to "chain together" certain commands.
Super Service Dogs: The dogs learn to fine-tune previously-learned skills.
As the dogs mature, training becomes part of their daily routine, Pape said.
"It can take a lot of patience to train them," she said. "Each dog is different. Every dog seems to have its struggles."
Most of the dogs that start their training as puppies are eventually matched with a person with disabilities, Pape said.
"Sometimes they don't make it," she said. "Sometimes it's because of health issues, and then every once in awhile you get a dog that's not cut out for service work. If they don't make it into service, the foster families will adopt them."
Service dogs learn specific skills that will be uniquely helpful to certain individuals, Pape said.
"As the dogs are matched with their people, we work on training things into the dog that a particular person will need," she said.
Foster home trainers and their dogs meet together for weekly training sessions at the Helping Paws Training Center in Hopkins, she said.
"We want to make sure the dogs are mature enough to handle certain situations," she said. "We want them to be comfortable in their new homes. There's a lot of training that goes into it."
Any adult in Minnesota or western Wisconsin with a physical disability other than vision impairment or loss of hearing may apply to obtain a Helping Paws service dog. For more information, go to www.helpingpaws.org.
Helping Paws has only a few full-time and part-time employees. All foster home trainers are unpaid volunteers.
Helping Paws began a breeding program in 2002 to ensure that service dogs will be available to the disabled in a timely manner. The organization breeds purebred golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers based on those breeds' temperament, trainability and willingness to work.
Dogs such as Faith are chosen as Helping Paws mothers based on American Kennel Club breed standards such as how the dog looks, how it stands, height, weight and coat, Pape said.
Faith was surgically implanted with semen from a golden retriever that lives in Texas.
"The father of this litter is awesome," Pape said. "He won the Golden Retriever National Show two years in a row. His (human) mother is in touch with Helping Paws to see how (the puppies) are doing."
Faith gave birth to her first Helping Paws litter about a year ago, on March 11, 2009. The nine puppies, now almost full grown, are progressing well, Pape said.
"They're so good," she said. "They're all doing really well. They're all beautiful dogs."
After they finish their training, service dogs are worth about $15,000 each, Pape said.
"That's a highly-trained dog," she said.
Pape loves being a part of the Helping Paws program.
"It gives me an opportunity to help the program give dogs to people who need them," she said. "The training has taught me about positive reinforcement and discipline and how those things work with both animals and humans."
Posted: Monday, April 12, 2010
Article comment by:
Chris and Joker
This is really a wonderful thing you do! My dog Joker and I have taken part for 4 yrs now in the Wag,Walk and Run 5k raising donations for Helping Paws, Inc. to help with the costs of breeding, raising and training of these service dogs! Joker has a donation page if any one is inteerested in making a donation. http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Chris-And-Joker-For-Helping-PawsOf-Mn-Wag-Walk-And-Run