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Domesti-PUPS: The Canine Companion Cure


You walk in the door after a long day at work and are greeted enthusiastically with wet kisses and joyful noises.  No, it’s not your standard welcome home from your spouse.  It’s your dog.  As any dog owner knows, pets are ALWAYS happy to see you.  They don’t remember the scolding they received that morning when they jumped on the counter and consumed a full stick of butter or ran off with your sock before you could get it on your foot.  They forgive you when you stuff a pill down their resistant throat or squirt drops in their ear to treat an ear infection.  They are just happy to see you after any length of absence and think the penultimate in entertainment is being strapped to a leash for a walk.  It’s unconditional love in its simplest form.


Michelle Ashley decided to tap into this limitless source of unconditional love when she founded the non-profit organization, Domesti-PUPS in 2000. Its mission is “to improve the quality of life for persons with special needs through the assistance of animals, and to promote awareness through education,” says Ashley, Founder and CEO of Domesti-PUPS. It is an all-volunteer program, headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska with satellite sites in Omaha and St. Joseph, Missouri. Domesti-PUPS also places service dogs nationwide.


80 percent of the volunteers use their own dogs in the various service programs. The training is extensive. The human/canine team attends a series of eight classes over a two-month period, says Ashley. This is followed by a pet therapy test which includes AKC (American Kennel Club) Canine Good Citizen testing. Once these requirements have been satisfied, the team then completes three months of on the job, supervised training. Only then does Domesti-PUPS grant certification. Volunteers are asked to give a minimum of two therapy visits per month.


Domesti-PUPS offers several services for clients with both physical and emotional disabilities. With Petting-PUPS, volunteers visit nursing homes and assisted living facilities to spread canine love and companionship with residents. The death of a spouse and loss of independence often result in feelings of isolation and loneliness for residents in these centers. Pet therapy is a proven anecdote. The simple, tactile act of petting an animal fills the need for loving contact.


Dogs also have their place in the classroom with the Edu-PUPS and Reading-PUPS programs. With Edu-PUPS, educators use certified therapy dogs to teach students with physical, emotional, and developmental disabilities. They can be used to help ADHD children to focus. They help reinforce concepts like responsibility and respect in both traditional and special needs classrooms. These canines also help motivate children in all aspects of school life.


The same premise applies to Reading-PUPS. Service dogs become the trusted audience for under-achieving readers, giving them the confidence to take their time to sound out words. Young readers need not worry about stumbling through a passage; their canine companions listen without judgment and offer silent encouragement.


Service-PUPS is a program designed to increase independence and feelings of well-being in persons with physical disabilities. Those with service animals require less human assistance, reducing overall cost of healthcare, and experience greater instances of self-sufficiency and social acceptance. Dogs undergo extensive training which lasts from 14 months to two years and must meet or exceed the minimum requirements set by Assistance Dogs International, says Ashley. It is also one of Domesti-PUPS programs with national reach as service pups are placed in numerous states throughout the country.


In partnership with the Nebraska Department of Corrections, Prison-PUPS provides “training and certification for inmates to learn skills related to the pet industry that can be utilized by the inmates when they re-enter the workforce,” Ashley explains. The Lincoln Correctional Center and the Nebraska State Penitentiary are participants in this program. Their inmates are currently learning to train service dogs for people with physical disabilities.


The power of canine companionship is profound. Says Ashley: “Whether it is a pet therapy team who can make a typically non-responsive patient’s eyes light up or speak out, an emotionally damaged student who finds comfort and safety in school because of her Edu-PUP buddy, or a disabled individual who now has a way to become more independent through the use of his service dog … these dogs provide a magical gift.”


“Dogs have the ability to provide so much more than just what we see at home in our pets,” she continues. “They love unconditionally, and that’s pretty powerful.”


For more information on Domesti-PUPS, visit www.domesti-pups.org.