JENNIFER Dowler loves dogs and loves helping people. That’s why she set up Dogs for the Disabled in 2007.
Now she is issuing an urgent, heartfelt appeal to families who share her passion to take the plunge and foster a puppy for 12-14 months.
“I know the biggest worry people have about fostering a dog is how will they give it up, but we have to help each other,” Jennifer says.
“To be honest, if you’re not worried about giving the dog up then we don’t want you. We want people who will bond with and love the dog.
"We will look after the dog and make sure it goes to someone who will equally love it,” she points out.
Jennifer wants families to know their actions will help transform the lives of children and adults with profound physical disabilities. The charity trains dogs to assist children and adults in carrying out a range of practical tasks and to provide stability when needed.
“Unless the puppies are given love, it would be impossible for them to carry out their roles as assistance dogs.
"We’re teaching them to do the ABCs, whereas the families make them who they are”, explains Jennifer.
There has never been a greater need for foster families as so many people have returned to the office following the lifting of Covid restrictions. Others bought dogs during the lockdown without properly thinking it through.
The puppies don’t go to foster families until they are between 10-12 weeks old and are already confident in their environment.
“We start toilet training, lead walking, basic obedience, and we take them into shops with their puppy jackets,” says Jennifer.
Foster families are asked to discourage the puppies from biting and jumping up on people as the dogs need to be safe around children.
“Overall, we just ask families to look after and love the dog,” stresses Jennifer.
Dogs for the Disabled are always looking for people to take dogs overnight and at weekends for the few months they’re in training at the charity’s base in Togher. Volunteers need to live in the general vicinity or be passing by the area in the morning and evening.
Jennifer’s family have grown used to her arriving home with up to five fully grown Labradors or Golden Retrievers. She has even converted part of her home to accommodate her many canine friends. Jennifer’s three children, ranging in age from nine to 13, are great at looking after the puppy litters.
The mum loves to post pictures and videos of the dogs having fun in the woods and fields near her home on the Dogs for the Disabled Facebook page. In addition, the antics of the little puppies get a great response from people who follow the charity on Facebook.
“Generally, our clients live very difficult lives and so we want to make sure we focus on the positive. We do have some children who are dying and their families are struggling but they don’t want us to be focusing on the negative”, says Jennifer.
“Our ethos is that we will find the light in any darkness and we will work on that. We want to focus on the now and the happy, the good stories,” Jennifer points out.
When Jennifer set up Dogs for the Disabled, the plan was to train dogs to assist adults in wheelchairs.
However, it quickly became apparent that assistance dogs have an invaluable role to play in helping some children to walk.
Dogs for the Disabled has its own breeding programme, and the dogs are looked after from birth to retirement.
“The dogs are the equivalent of five-year-old children. They can only cope with so much and so it’s important that we look out for them,” says Jennifer.
As CEO of Dogs for the Disabled, she is always eager to develop new ways of helping individuals with different needs. In recent times, she trained a Labrador to assist a man with Parkinson’s disease with his walking and mobility. The pilot project was carried out in conjunction with Professor Tim Lynch from the Dublin Neurological Institute. It proved so successful that there are plans to expand it.
Dogs that don’t meet the assistance dog requirements are undertaking very worthwhile alternative paths. A Labrador called Lilly helps senior occupational therapist, Niall Condon, at St Otteran’s Hospital, Waterford, with his assessment programme for people living with dementia. Niall finds that clients interact with Lilly in a way they might not do with him.
Dogs for the Disabled have also trained a dog to assist a psychologist who is working with youths at risk. The project is proving very beneficial all round.
“Dogs are wonderful animals and they can help people in so many ways, provided they are supported,” concludes Jennifer.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or Elizabeth@dogsfordisabled.ie
Also see https://dogsfordisabled.ie/