From picking up a dropped set of keys and opening doors to loading the laundry in the washer and assisting someone in and out of bed, having a properly trained service dog can be the difference between a disabled veteran having their own independence or needing 24/7 in-person care.
Founder of Four Paws and a Wake Up Inc. (Four Paws), Andrea Joseph wanted to make a difference in veterans’ lives and establish a way to provide valuable independence and autonomy through highly trained service dogs. As someone who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Andrea is familiar with the impact a service dog can have on someone’s daily life. “My first service dog saved my life,” Andrea says.
As Andrea prepared to retire as a criminal justice professor at New Mexico State University, she started thinking about what she wanted to do next. With her service dog at her side, she thought something she could do is train service dogs for others. After more thought, the idea solidified and she soon discovered there weren’t any service dog facilities in the area. So, Andrea prepared by meeting with operators of training facilities, service dog advocates, and movers and shakers across the United States. Canine researcher Bonnie Bergin was a major inspiration for Andrea. “Once I realized just how much they could do, I realized how amazing this could be,” said Andrea.
She decided that starting a service dog training facility specifically to help veterans struggling with mobility issues, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury (TBI) was her next chapter and Four Paws and a Wake Up Inc. was established in New Mexico.
“We had the house with two acres of land. One acre for the house. One acre for the weeds,” Andrea recalled. So, they broke ground for the facility on Andrea’s land in late October 2020. Four Paws became incorporated in 2019, and in August 2022 the organization’s facility received its final approval from the city. The grand opening ceremony took place in October 2022.
“Our goal is to help veterans gain the independence they need with the gift of a highly trained service dog. We also want to educate the public about what a service dog is and how it should be viewed as a medical device,” says Andrea.
The difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog is that a service dog must be able to perform a task either by command or independently because they know it needs to be done.
Four Paws New Mexico is currently a small but mighty team of four: Andrea, her partner and co-founder Kris Richey, and trainers Aly De La O and Gabe Espinosa, with more than 50 years of combined training experience.
In her planning stages, Andrea received inspiration and support from Rick Hairston of North Carolina, who was in return inspired by what Andrea envisioned. He had a facility operating under another organization, but he is now vice president of Four Paws and a Wake Up and president and founder of Four Paws and a Wake Up North Carolina.
For Four Paws puppies, desensitization training starts at just 3 days old! Andrea explained that this trains them at an early age to be calmer dogs.
Four Paws trainers follow the 3 Ds of training: distance, duration, and distraction. Let’s take the basic command “stay.” First, trainers give the puppy the command “sit” and when the puppy succeeds, it is followed by the command “stay.” The trainer will stand right next to the pup at first. The trainer then gradually steps further and further away repeating the command. Then, the trainer will increase the time that the pup stays sitting or lying down. Next, distractions such as balls or people are introduced. The goal is to get the puppies to a point where they will stay where they are told and won’t move no matter how long, how far away their owner is, or what distractions are around.
Basic training such as “sit,” “stay,” “leave it,” and “lie down” starts at 8 weeks old. Once puppies have mastered basic commands, trainers move on to intermediate commands like “take,” “hold,” and “give,” and progress to more advanced commands.
After all levels of commands are learned, the dogs begin to learn skills. Trainers begin to work on skills by stringing commands together to teach tasks like holding a door open, turning on a light, opening and closing a drawer, retrieving objects from different heights and surfaces, and even loading the laundry in the washer and dryer.
There are a few focus programs that the service dogs can specialize in: mobility, PTSD, and/or TBI. Some of the training tasks include how to behave on an airplane; opening, holding open, and closing doors, drawers, and cabinets; helping someone in and out of bed; loading the laundry; and retrieving items from the refrigerator.
“Once the dog gets closer to being ready for placement and deemed a good fit for an applicant, we will begin fine-tuning the skills of the dog,” says Andrea. She stressed that a large focus for Four Paws is to make sure the service dogs are custom-trained for the veterans with whom they are being paired.
In addition to training, the pups are also given an extensive health examination to ensure that there are no physical problems that will hinder the dog’s ability to work and that they are completely healthy.
The entire service dog training process takes anywhere between 12 to 24 months before the pups are ready to go to their forever home. Four Paws works with puppies that are born at the facility and adopted dogs that are no older than two years to ensure that they have the longest working life possible. Current trainees will be ready to be paired in spring 2023.
WHAT MAKES FOUR PAWS DIFFERENT
Four Paws takes into consideration how the client’s house is set up, what kind of home they live in, what their special needs are, and more, to ensure the best quality of life for the veteran and the dog. For example, if going out for walks isn’t an option, Four Paws will be sure to pair the veteran with a dog that loves walking on the treadmill. Public access training is started at a young age. The pups are taken on field trips to the grocery store, the mall, restaurants, and other highly populated places to get them comfortable in a variety of situations and with different people.
The facility where the service dogs grow up and train is tucked away in the Picacho area and is truly a puppy’s paradise. The dogs enjoy a grooming station, large yard, confidence course, large indoor and outdoor kennels, a separate puppy room, indoor training room, and more. The Four Paws facility also has a bedroom for veterans in the pairing process to be able to get one-on-one training and bonding with their new service dog.
VETERANS, APPLY NOW!
Four Paws’ custom-trained service dogs are donated, free of cost, to the veteran.
The application is extensive, requiring detailed descriptions and videos of the veteran’s home. This is to ensure that Four Paws can properly train the service dog to the specific needs of the veteran and that the dog will be happy and well taken care of in its new home.
Applications may be found at k94paws.org/apply-for-a-service-dog.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Four Paws always needs volunteers and donations. Volunteer opportunities include dog walking, puppy petting, and more. Training assistance is another opportunity that teaches the pups to take commands from anyone — not just trainers. This is a vital skill that helps in the transition process when veterans start working with service dogs.
Volunteers referred to as “puppy petters” give the newborn puppies attention and expose them to people of different heights, sizes, faces, personalities, ethnicities, and ages.
Four Paws is also looking for donations of common and unusual, random objects that help in training for everyday life, such as:
– Durable dog toys
– Used smartphones (iPhones, Galaxies, etc.)
– Dog treats
– Prosthetics (above and below the knee legs, arms, etc.)
– Toys or objects that make strange noises
– Halloween costumes, masks, unusual clothing
– Unusual hats
– Small chests of drawers (various sizes)
– Kuranda beds (they are listed as a charity on kuranda.com where you can find a wish list)
– Metal dog crates of all sizes
One donation not accepted is dog food because frequently switching food is not healthy for dogs.
If you have something you think Four Paws could use, give them a call and ask if it is needed. The most useful donation is money. Scan the QR code to donate now or mail a donation directly to them.
A unique way you can support Four Paws and honor a loved one is through the purchase of a custom brick in its flagpole memorial courtyard. There are multiple sizes available. Access more ways to help at k94paws.org/ways-to-help.
You can also buy Four Paws merchandise like T-shirts, mugs, and stickers at bonfire.com/store/four-paws-and-a-wake-up.
Learn more about volunteering and events at k94paws.org/contact-8.
Four Paws and a Wake Up New Mexico
Story and photography by Olivia Belcher
Originally published in Neighbors magazine