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Service Dogs During Pandemic

June 1, 2020

Three Grand Rapids nonprofit organizations are collaborating to train assistance dogs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Paws With A Cause, YWCA of West Central Michigan and Community Food Club have teamed up to provide necessary training for assistance dogs who cater to people with disabilities. The arrangement has allowed for the dog training during the current stay-at-home order in Michigan.

Due to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, PAWS trainers have not been able to train assistance dogs in public places since March 13.

In order to restart the dogs’ training, the YWCA is sharing space in its Sheldon building, at 25 Sheldon Blvd. SE, where dogs learn practical skills to assist Paws With A Cause clients.

“We are pleased to partner with Paws With A Cause, who shares our commitment to accessibility for all,” YWCA CEO Charisse Mitchell said in the press release. “Service animals can be a wonderful resource for individuals with disabilities, including clients we work with at the YWCA.” PAWS assistance dogs help those with mental and physical disabilities complete daily tasks and increase their independence.

AWS trainers use facilities at YWCA to teach assistance dogs to open doors and pick up dropped items, as well as navigate stairs, elevators and ramps.

Access to diverse training environments has been key to the assistance dogs’ training, said Barb Kozminski, senior staff trainer.

“Having different environments to work in is really important,” said Kozminski, trainer of 29 years. “This allows (the assistance dogs) to be exposed to different distractions, too.” As YWCA staff work in the area, the dogs can practice their skills with other people nearby to simulate a likely scenario for their clients.

Each PAWS trainer typically works with five to seven dogs daily. The dogs may be at different stages in their training, Kozminski said.

There are approximately 50 assistance dogs currently being trained. Some have already been matched to clients and are well on their way to their future home.

Meghan Sweers, a PAWS staff trainer for the past year, finds the diverse learning environments especially helpful for dogs in training.

“Getting the dogs out helps the trainers decide which career path to put them on and get more information about how they can serve clients,” Sweers said.

Community Food Club,  a nonprofit member-based grocery store, exposes the assistance dogs to a grocery story setting. The nonprofit also provides an opportunity for PAWS trainers to teach the dogs to avoid food temptations. “We really believe in the mission at PAWS,” said AJ Fossel, executive director of Community Food Club. “It’s brought a lot of joy for my team during a tough time. We love the work they are doing and hope more of our members can benefit from their services in the future.”

The assistance dogs will only access parts of the YWCA and Community Food Club buildings currently closed to the public. COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as wearing masks and social distancing, are in place.

Services currently offered by the local nonprofits will not be negatively affected during this collaboration, officials said.

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