WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - With a growing demand for service dogs nationwide, paws4people is making a difference by providing dozens of dogs per year to those in need.
The program holds classes at UNCW, currently the only school in the country to have an assistance dog training program
Kyria Henry, paws4people founder and CEO, said students spend two semesters in the classroom learning the background of training, then move on get a dog.
"The students that stick with it and finish it out are really transformed, because they worked hands on with a client and they've been part of investing in this dog and then handing it over and seeing it change someone's life," Henry said. "So its been really emotional to get to watch them have those experiences."
The dogs are trained throughout their entire life for different tasks ranging from mobility and stability to PTSD and anxiety.
"On top of this wonderful life-changing, confidence-building relationship, these clients then also have a dog who is able to perform tasks that make them independent and they don't have to rely on a caretaker as much or another family member," Henry said. "They're able to reintegrate into more kind of typical peer activities of daily living. So it just completely changes their daily lifestyle."
Enrollment in the UNCW program has more than doubled after five years on campus.
Henry said paws4people places 50-60 service dogs in the community per year. Marine veteran Patrick Wyatt has had his service dog, Princess, for two years.
Princess helps Wyatt as he learns to walk again, retrieves items and helps out around the house.
"Out of vest she is your typical spunky German Shepherd," Wyatt said. "In vest, to me it still boggles my mind. She's very professional. She's very on the spot. She can do things before I even have time to give her the command to do things."
Princess is a certified mobility assistance dog. Trainers are now prepping her for psychiatric response for post-traumatic stress and anxiety.
But Wyatt says even without formal certification, Princess can recognize when he is having an anxiety attack and comforts him.
Bill Ebersbach, a Purple Heart veteran, is still early in the process with his service dog, Wetherly.
Wetherly will be trained for post-traumatic stress interruption, nightmare interception and hearing loss.
Ebersbach's VA psychiatrist signed off on getting him a service dog, then he met Wetherly as a puppy.
"This little black dog with deep brown eyes came up and just kind of sat in front of me and looked me straight in the eye and said you know, 'let's go do this,' and that was it," Ebersbach said. "It's just a repeat of that each time. It's kind of like seeing your child for the first time. You can't explain that moment, but the first time you see and hold your own child, I would say that it's very similar to somebody like me. It's powerful."
Both Ebersbach and Wyatt said having service dogs has changed their lives.
"I know she doesn't know what I'm saying when I'm venting, but all she does is stick one ear up, one ear down and stare at me like, 'Go for broke, Dad. Whatever you got to do, and as soon as you're done we're playing fetch,'" Wyatt said.