Hairy Heroes

by Stevie Sigan

The dogs go everywhere. They ride the trains, attend games, go to concerts, sit at school, shop at the mall and dine in the areas finest restaurants.

All of these trips are a must for service dogs in training, explains Donna Kosner, one of three founding members of Paws Giving Independence (PGI), a nonprofit organization in Peoria that trains rescued dogs to become service dogs to assist individuals with disabilities. A completely volunteer-run operation, PGI was incorporated in 2008, fueled by two passions: a pure love for dogs and a desire to help others. The founders—Donna; her daughter, Michelle; and friend, Brandi Arnold—all have full-time jobs, but in spite of their busy schedules, the group has now paired over 50 specially-trained dogs with local individuals in need.

The group’s motto, “Saving a life to change a life,” is evident in every PGI dog—mixed breeds adopted from PAWS, TAPS and other local shelters. The majority of the mutts are Lab or German Shepherd mixes between 10 and 12 months old, and they require about a year to be trained, setting the stage for their placement with individuals suffering a wide range of disabilities, from mobility issues and Parkinson's disease to autism and partial sight or hearing loss.

But the dogs are about more than just opening doors and bracing for potential falls. For one 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair with spinal paraplegia, a trained PGI service dog eased her social anxiety. The wheelchair was always what people used to see first, Donna recalls. “Now, they come up and ask about her dog… It’s that social aspect that our clients really like.”

Likewise, where autism often strips kids of words, trained dogs can bridge the gap, encouraging autistic children to communicate through hand commands. The dogs, trained to recognize outbursts, are a steady, calming presence for children struggling with sensory overload. Similarly, PGI has placed dogs with veterans suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder.

“There’s something about that security—that there’s something out there, this dog that they count on—that’s really good for them,” she explains. a&s

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