The tail-wagging “therapists” trained by Maureen Maurer and her team at Assistance Dogs of Hawaii not only put smiles on faces—they can also save lives.
Roaming the halls of Kap‘iolani Medical Center for Women and Children, Tucker instantly draws a smile from those who pass by. Meanwhile, over at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, Angel expertly relaxes patients, and Pono calms children who enter the City and County of Honolulu Department of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
But they aren’t your average employees. These just happen to come with four legs, a tail and sometimes-slobbery grins—they’re graduates of the nonprofit organization Assistance Dogs of Hawaii.
For more than 15 years now, founder Maureen “Mo” Maurer and her team have trained dogs for just about everything. Th e nationally accredited organization most recently found success in a study it completed that taught dogs to detect life-threatening bacterial infections in humans, for example.
For Maurer, who started off training guide dogs for the blind more than 20 years ago, it perfectly illustrates all that dogs can do and how much the industry has grown.
“Th at’s what’s exciting to me—really developing new ways that dogs can help people in need,” she says.
Maurer estimates that facility dogs like Tucker, Angel and Pono that work in hospitals and courthouses help more than one thousand people every year.
Th at number is much larger, though, when you consider family members and staff the dogs regularly interact with.
“It’s amazing to see how people’s faces light up when they see the Hospital Facility Dogs and Courthouse Dogs at work,” says Maurer. “Th ey help people through what is often the most difficult time of their lives.
It all begins the moment a puppy is born. Bred and raised at a guide dog school in Australia, pups enter training almost immediately, getting socialized and exposed to various stimuli. When a puppy is about seven weeks old, it is evaluated and assessed to determine whether it possesses characteristics such as a calm temperament, confidence and strong work ethic.
More training takes place at the organization’s main campus in Maui once Assistance Dogs of Hawaii selects its puppies. Th e entire process takes about two years to complete, with puppies first learning together using the same curriculum before they break off into various specialties—skilled companion dogs, service dogs, seizure response dogs and more.
“I enjoy spending time with each puppy in training and learning what their specific temperament, strengths and skills are,” says Maurer. “We are very careful with the matching process to make sure they are placed with the right partner.”
Once dogs are placed with their handlers, their ties with Assistance Dogs of Hawaii are not severed. In fact, the organization provides a lifetime of follow-up support completely free of charge.
Assistance Dogs of Hawaii also regularly extends its reach into the community, bringing therapy dogs to places like hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters. Dogs visit students with special needs in classrooms, for instance, and help other children who have difficulty reading get more comfortable with it by reading aloud to dogs through its “PAWS” for Reading Program that takes place at local libraries.
Maurer also is confident that these dogs will save lives. In many of the people Assistance Dogs of Hawaii canines interact with, it is not uncommon for those suffering from neurological impairments or spinal cord injuries to develop urinary tract infections that quickly can become life threatening. By applying the same method and protocol used to train dogs that detect cancer, Maurer and her team were met with a high accuracy rate with their dogs that were able to identify life-threatening bacterial infections in a double-blind study.
For Maurer, everything she sees dogs accomplish simply is proof of possibilities—and all of it, she says, has “just been amazing.”
“It’s so exciting to see how many lives they change and how profoundly they can change someone’s life and help them achieve independence,” says Maurer.
“We’re so thankful for all the community support that we’ve received over the years, and just for the opportunity that we’ve had to make a difference in our community,” she adds.
For more information, and to find out how to get involved or help Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, visit assistancedogshawaii.org.