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Updated: Mar 8, 2021

PUPPIES, PUPPIES, PUPPIES! It’s puppy cuteness overload at the paws4people® Puppy Development Center in Castle Hayne as seven fluffy Golden retriever pups tumble over each other to find their spot on their mama’s belly. Lunch time! Mama is being very patient. She is a full- time paws4people® service dog named SHILOH.

Story by Amanda Lisk Photographs by Tammy Pope

“SHILOH has been here with her puppies since they were born six weeks ago. This is SHILOH’s third and final litter,” explains Samantha Cleary, director of Puppy Development for paws4people®, a non-profit organization that trains Golden retrievers, Labradors and a hybrid of the two to become service dogs. The pups start their training when they are just three days old and they train specifically to serve and assist children, veterans, military dependents and civilians who have disabilities.

“The entire process begins here at the Puppy Development Center in Castle Hayne. All of our puppies are bred and born into our program,” Cleary says.

Down the hall, two older puppies are in the STEM lab playing with balls. Their siblings are out in the field learning how to interact in everyday life. That’s what the seven younger puppies will be doing now that they are officially six weeks old. The puppies go places like area gift shops, the fire department and local banks.

“We want them to be socialized and well-mannered as early as possible. Since they are going to be service dogs one day, they need to be acclimated to as many sights, sounds, smells, and people as possible. We take them to department stores, schools, the mall…anywhere the general public can go, service dogs are allowed to go,” says Cleary.

This year paws4people® celebrates 20 years. The program was founded by Kyria Henry in 1999 when she was just 12 years old. Her goal: to use dogs to help people. “Twenty years into fulfilling our mission, I would never have dreamed we would have the scale, team, and community support that we have found,” says Henry.

To date, paws4people® has trained and placed more than 600 service dogs with people in need all across the United States. The paws4vets program trains dogs to help Veterans and Service Members with Chronic/Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). Veterans who have service dogs have lower rates of medication use for things like depression and anxiety.

“I looked up, I looked to him and he ran to me and that’s when things started to get a lot better,” said one Veteran on the paws4people® Facebook page about his experience meeting his service dog for the first time.

Together, the paws4people® dogs have made over one million therapeutic contacts. Once fully trained and placed, the dogs can assist their clients with a wide range of activities such as retrieving a wheelchair, turning lights off and on, pressing handicap buttons, opening the refrigerator, nightmare interruption, and much more.

The paws4people® organization has around 120 dogs in training at all times including the seven puppies currently in training at the Puppy Development Center in Castle Hayne.

At approximately 20 weeks, the puppies go to correctional facilities in West Virginia to train with inmate trainers as part of the paws4people® paws4prisons® program. “The paws4prisons® program is not only great for us but it’s extremely therapeutic for the inmate trainers,” says Cleary.

When the dogs turn one year old, they meet their client. “We let our service dogs choose who they want to work for” explains Cleary. “We introduce our clients one at a time and see what the initial reaction and bond is between the two. We want to place the dog where they are going to be most successful,” she says.

Clients then spend a minimum of four months training with their service dog. That training takes place back in Wilmington with the help of UNCW students in the UNCW/paws4people Service Dog Training Program.

Once the client completes their training, they get to take their service dog home. “When I began training, I hoped JACKSON would help, now there’s no doubt he is my future,” said Walter Parker, USA Veteran and paws4vets client.

“I love that moment. I think of all of the ups and downs everyone went through to get to this moment and realize that it was worth every second,” says Brianna McLellan, paws4people® intern trainer.

“My life has been transformed by paws4people® much like it does for every one of our clients. Working with these dogs and puppies has given me confidence and patience that I was unable to see within myself,” says Sara Coppick, paws4people® intern trainer.

Want to get involved and Meet the paws4people® puppies & service dogs in training?

Paws on Parade with the north Carolina Azalea Festival

Saturday March 14th at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater – 3pM to 6pM

Derby4Dogs Garden Party

Saturday May 2nd at Cape Fear Community College Union Station – 4:30pM to 7:30pM


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