Saint Francis Service Dog visits Vinton Host Lions Club meeting
VINTON–The Vinton Host Lions Club welcomed Niki Voudren and staff dog Bella from the Saint Francis Service dogs organization to their meeting on June 25.
The club is a branch of Lions Club International, the world’s largest service club organization. They are the benefactors of many local charities and events, in addition to national and international projects. Each year the group conducts vision screenings for over 300 preschoolers in the Vinton area.
Saint Francis Service Dogs is a local non-profit organization which partners children and adults with disabilities with professionally trained dogs. The dogs provide assistance or perform tasks to help them become more independent and self-sufficient.
Voudren is the Director of Development for Saint Francis. Bella, age 7, became their staff dog five years ago when hip problems prevented her from taking on service dog duties. She now travels to various events with Voudren and other staff members.
Their organization places dogs with those who have been diagnosed with a variety of debilitating conditions from multiple sclerosis, to autism, ALS, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, or brain injury. Service dogs are also trained to assist veterans with physical injuries or with conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, those who have “not only wounded bodies, but wounded spirits.”
The two came to Vinton on a fundraising mission. As Director of Development for Saint Francis, Voudren bears the responsibility for raising the $600,000 it takes to run the program each year. She solicits donation from individuals, clubs, businesses, and organizations. She spends much of her time writing grant proposals for funding in amounts varying from $5,000 to $75,000.
Saint Francis Service Dogs is not part of a national organization; they receive no state or federal funds. They have no revenue stream and receive no reimbursements from insurance.
Saint Francis is well-known locally for their annual Dogtoberfest fundraiser held at their headquarters on Enon Drive in North Roanoke County.
It takes two years and $25,000 to raise, train, and place each service dog. Each year since 1986 Saint Francis has placed 10 to 15 dogs.
Labs and Golden Retrievers seem to make the best service dogs because of their natural retrieving skills and high, but controllable energy levels. They are a good size and weight for their tasks; they tend to love people, and are usually easily trained. A good service dog is usually motivated by food, another trait of these breeds.
Owners go through a screening process to qualify for a service dog. Their medical condition is documented. They must have a fenced-in backyard. Their homes must be clean and safe.
Saint Francis monitors the health and happiness of the dog and recertifies the dog every two years. Adopting a service dog is a commitment for the life of the dog, about 8 to 10 years. When the dog needs to retire, the disabled owner is put at the top of the waiting list for a new dog. Their waiting list is currently capped at 20.
Saint Francis is the largest service dog organization in Virginia and the first to be accredited by the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) organization, a coalition of non-profit organizations that train and place Assistance Dogs with established standards of excellence.
Service dogs learn approximately 50 different tasks. These dogs, unlike guide dogs for the blind, do not lead. They generally stay to one side, so they are taught the commands “right” and “left”.
In addition to normal commands, like sit, “leave it”, or stay, service dogs learn to go for help, pick things up, open and close doors, retrieve the phone or keys, turn lights on and off, carry light bags, and make monetary transactions.
Training begins for puppies when they are eight weeks old and have been screened to determine whether they have the requisite skills to become service dogs. It takes from two to two and a half years of training before they are ready for placement with an owner.
Once they are trained, service dogs are matched with an individual and trained in the specifics of what that particular person needs. After ninety days, the disabled individual is awarded ownership of the dog.
Service dogs are allowed by law to accompany their owners anywhere, even into restaurants. They are trained to be still in restaurants and generally sit underneath the table.
Service dogs don’t just perform tasks though; they improve lives. Research has shown that a disabled person with a service dog is more likely to stay in school, get a job, and engage fully in life.
“Service dogs provide humor and laughter,” said Voudren. “The disabled tend to feel invisible because often people avoid making eye contact with them out of embarrassment or not knowing what to say. Service dogs help to alleviate that isolation. They facilitate conversations and friendships between the disabled and non-disabled. The dogs relieve loneliness and depression. They comfort people.”
Saint Francis has volunteer puppy raisers, puppy sitters, and foster parents. They must all follow a systematic process in training the dogs, use the correct vocabulary, and attend weekly classes.
The organization established a Prison Pup Program in 2002 at the Bland Correctional Center. Inmates are selected to serve as puppy raisers, preparing the dogs for entrance into the training program, a program that gives purpose to the lives of those who are incarcerated.
More information is available at www.saintfranciscogs.org. The Vinton Host Lions Club meets each month on the second and fourth Mondays at 6:30 at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church.