July 31, 2020
CHAMP Assistance Dogs, a nonprofit that places skilled service dogs with individuals with disabilities and much more, is showings it’s paw-ssible to make a difference even amid a pandemic.
“We have a team of therapy dogs that usually visit anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 people a year,” says Pam Budke, the organization’s executive director. “Of course, this year is a total different ballgame. We have not been able to get out, but we are doing visits through the windows.”
Budke says one such recent visit was to Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital in Maryland Heights and was a howling success.
“Ranken Jordan had these little walkie-talkies that the kids could come to the windows … and the kids could ask questions about the dog, and the dogs did tricks for them,” Budke says. “When we went around to the other windows and came back, the kids had drawn pictures of the dogs and gave them to us. It was just so cool.” Although therapy dogs are a large part of this nonprofit – normally visiting more than 100 facilities in the metro area each month – its main mission since 1998 has been to provide pups to individuals with physical disabilities or cognitive issues.
“For physical [disabilities], we have dogs that can pick up dropped items,” Budke says. “They can open up doors. They can help with laundry. They can turn light switches on and off. They can actually get a phone; if someone says 911 if they fall and need a phone, the dog knows where it is, and the dog will go run and get that phone and bring it to them.
“Then we have people with cognitive issues or depression or anxiety,” Budke continues. “The dogs are great for calming them down. Sometimes, they can just tell when someone needs that companionship or when someone is anxious. The dogs make a huge difference.”
Each CHAMP assistance dog typically goes through eight weeks of training at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri – a program temporarily on pause due to COVID-19 cases at the prison – and then spends an additional eight weeks at a puppy-raiser’s home in St. Louis, where they become socialized.
“Ultimately, we train our dogs for about two years before they are actually placed,” Budke says. “When we are getting close to placement after a dog has a set of skills, and they are doing well on their skills, then we will start training that dog specifically for a person.”
Although CHAMP Assistance Dogs may not be placing new canines at this time, Budke guarantees the nonprofit is keeping busy with clients.
“It’s crazy, but I feel like we are staying more in touch with people than we were before,” Budke says. “We are doing all sorts of videos and sharing those through Facebook and Zoom, sharing skills they can work on with their dog through Zoom. We are keeping our mission alive and active.”