Dogs, At Your Service

By Caroline Murray – March 1, 2017
Photography by Weston Carls

Two Austin organizations, Divine Canines and Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers, are committed to bringing therapy and service dogs to people in need. Each aids different Austin-area communities, though. Divine Canines focuses on sending therapy dogs to visit hundreds of children and adults on a regular basis. Although they began their mission in 2004 with only five dog and handler pairs, they now have 80 active teams who travel great distances to visit people with dementia, autism, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other kinds of mental and physical disabilities. Time with the dogs not only improves the visitees’ mood, but also builds trust between the dog, visitee, and handler.

On the other hand, Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers specifically serves the local blind community. Like Divine Canines, trust is the crucial ingredient in their process, albeit for a different purpose. Because their guide dogs become fully integrated partners in their owners' lives, they need to be consistent and on the same page at all times. Amazingly, the organization is able to offer their services free of charge, thanks to the generous work of their volunteers and donors.

Twix, a puppy in training at the Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers.

Different kinds of service pups have their own unique ways of improving people’s lives, but neither is more important than the other. It takes a unique type of personality to become a service dog—especially when it comes to their intuition and disposition. But, regardless of the specific role they perform, there’s no doubt these dogs are extraordinary, hard-working canines.

The Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers like to say that, just like a child, it takes a village to raise a guide dog. It’s a demanding journey for these pups, but introducing a guide dog into someone’s routine can be life-changing—and is well worth the effort. Just ask Morgan Watkins, a guide dog user and a board member of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Guide dogs, like Watkins’ dog Grandin, empower their blind and visually impaired owners and accompany them everywhere. Whether Watkins is crossing a busy street, traveling around the nation, or practicing his violin on a sunny day, Grandin is by his side. The connection this fosters takes the phrase ‘man’s best friend’ to a whole new level. Grandin is trained to handle a number of difficult tasks, including: navigating traffic, looking out for unexpected obstacles, and maintaining focus in the face of distractions. Obeying Watkins’ commands is important, but Grandin is also flexible and keeps the team’s safety as the top priority. If a potentially dangerous situation arises, Grandin can determine the best course of action and disobey a command if necessary. All this responsibility doesn’t mean goofing around is off-limits to guide dogs, though—treats, tricks, and belly rubs are still welcome rewards for a hard day’s work.

Morgan Watkins and Grandin

Heidi Armstrong and Bella are old pros at Divine Canines. With over 11 years of volunteering under their belts (or rather, collars), they’ve become one of the most honored therapy dog teams in the nation and have logged over 600 visits together while helping people with all kinds of struggles. Bella’s superpower is her intuition. She can sense the mood of the person she’s interacting with and dial up her energy and humor or remain calm, depending on their need. One of their most memorable visits was to Fort Hood, where they regularly met with soldiers suffering from PTSD. There was one particular veteran who had previously been known for his hesitant approach to therapy and didn't like dogs much. But after spending some time with Divine Canines’ dream team, this soldier ended up playing catch with Bella and talking to Armstrong about his interests. Armstrong believes veterans burdened by PTSD often feel isolated and need a way to connect with people. Thanks to dogs like Bella, this soldier and many others have forged relationships they wouldn't have otherwise been able to.

Karaline Hawley and Zooey

Having a basset hound snuggle on your lap and look up at you will melt anyone's heart. Divine Canine Zooey is no exception. As a therapy dog for many different people—including hospital patients, children with dyslexia, and people suffering from depression—it's her responsibility to share her upbeat mood with everyone. While a visit from Zooey isn’t a magical cure, her presence often relaxes people and allows them to find inner peace. Her ability to sense people’s emotions is astounding and instantly puts them at ease. Whether it's drawing a smile from someone in need or helping an elementary school student sound out a new word while reading, her companionship always has a major impact on the people she visits. And as if Zooey wasn’t already cute enough, her handler Karaline Hawley also likes to dress her up in fun outfits sometimes. She says no matter how tough their situation is, people can’t help but laugh when they see Zooey waddling around in a bright pink costume.



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