HomeColumnsA Helping Paw

A Helping Paw

Sally Richardson loves to help people. Living in the Toledo area all her life, she knew since high school that she wanted to work with children with disabilities. Richardson began working with Macomber/Whitney High School’s child care program then became a summer camp counselor. She worked for years at Glendale-Feilbach Elementary School, teaching what were known then as “Orthopedically Handicapped” classes— now called Special Needs Kindergarten.

Sally’s desire to help didn’t end after she retired in 2014. Soon, she began to consider volunteering for a program with The Ability Center — raising assistance dogs. “I was teaching aqua-jogging at the Y, and I kept seeing on Facebook that they (The Ability Center) were looking for puppy raisers. And I thought, ‘You know what? I think I
want to look into that.’”

Puppy love

The Ability Center’s Assistance Dogs program works to aid individuals with disabilities by pairing them with service and therapy dogs to assist with daily needs. The dogs who are part of the program must be trained in the basic techniques they’ll need to be of service — and that’s where volunteers like Sally come in.

“You get a puppy, and you just train them,” Sally said. “Most of them come already potty trained, or litter trained. And you train them on household behaviors as a puppy, and then you attend puppy classes once a week where you work with a trainer and they ask you to work on certain things.”

It was a perfect pairing for Sally: she grew up loving dogs, too. Sally has worked to train four dogs over the past five years for the Assistance Dog program. Her current dog, Nelly, is about 16 months old.

Sit and stay

Sally works on behavior with the dogs she trains almost daily, some-times multiple times. It’s important to focus on fundamentals— teaching the dog to sit, lay down, walk with a loose leash, etc.

Nelly is currently spending four months as part of a program in Michigan where assistance dogs are trained by inmates. The process not only provides additional experience for the dogs but can be therapeutic for the inmates, as well. When Nelly
returns to Sally in November, it’ll be time for her to start Final Training 2, really focusing on crucial skills. Most dog volunteer dog trainers keep the animals from puppyhood
through two years old. Volunteers can take care of a dog for as long as they want— just helping them during the puppy days, taking over when the dog gets older, or assisting through-out the entire process. Volunteers can even work only as a dog sitter, taking
care of an Assistance Dog while their master is away.


It’s not guaranteed that every dog in the program will pass and become certified as an Assistance Dog. Sometimes dogs will exhibit certain behaviors that cannot be overcome and that disqualifies them from becoming certified.

Of the three dogs Sally has trained, none of them have passed yet. In that case, the dog (referred to as a “fabulous flunkie”) is either given a different assignment, such as work-
ing as a therapy or school facility dog, or is adopted by a forever home. Sally herself adopted the third dog she trained, Marz. “I didn’t get into this to have a dog, but I said, ‘I can’t let him go. My gosh, he’s been with me all during COVID. He’s not going.’”

Sally has high hopes that Nelly will be her first dog to become a certified Assistance Dog. If a dog does pass, they are paired with a new owner and participate in a “passing of the leash” ceremony where the trainer officially hands the dog to the person whose life the animal will change for the better. “I keep saying, ‘Nelly’s going to be the one! She’s going to be the one to pass!’ I never give up.”

For more information on the Assistance Dogs program or to inquire about volunteering yourself, visit abilitycenter.org/assistance-dogs.

Recent Articles