Hudson resident Cathy Diaz compares fostering a dog to sending a child off to college. You welcome them in to your home. You teach them the skills they’ll need and get to know their personalities. And then after a bittersweet graduation ceremony, you send them away to make a difference in the world.
Diaz certainly knows what she’s talking about. Her current dog, a golden retriever named Rugby, is the fourth she’s fostered in 11 years volunteering for the Hopkins-based nonprofit. It’s an experience she’s found rewarding each cycle.
“Training the dogs is amazing, and seeing the dogs work for the graduates is just gratifying,” Diaz said.
Helping Paws provides service dogs to people with physical disabilities—such as spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or Lou Gehrig's disease—to help with the daily tasks of life.
The organization has two litters of puppies that need to be placed with foster homes in the upcoming months. It hosted an open house Saturday to tell people about the foster home experience and let them speak to those who are fostering dogs and those who have received dogs.
Piton, a chocolate lab, has been with Eden Prairie resident Jim Clark for two years. Clark has a neuromuscular disease similar that limits his mobility. Piton can help Clark with anything from a dropped set of keys to getting help if something happens.
“I’ll fall or do something stupid,” Clark joked. “They have an amazing number of things that they can do (to help).”
It takes commitment to train the dogs to that point. Volunteers take puppies into their homes for about two-and-a-half years. The dogs start out learning little cues as puppies and then progress to more advanced skills, Diaz said.
The foster home trainers attend weekly training classes at the Helping Paws facility in Hopkins on how to teach their dog the required skills. At home, they practice the lessons they learned in class, oversee the dog's health and socialize them to everyday places and situations.
Diaz said most of the home training can fit into a family’s daily routine—although she added that foster families do have to put in the time necessary to teach their dogs.
And then when it’s all over, they give the dogs away at that Clark said leaves everyone with tears in their eyes.
Clark confessed he wasn’t a dog person before Piton joined him. But he’s come to value Piton for more than his ability to pick up the odd set of dropped keys. He enjoys the lab’s companionship and unconditional love as much as the independence and security he brings to Clark.
“You do warm up to him pretty quick,” he said. “My wife says we put smiles on people’s faces.”
Visit HelpingPaws.org or call 952-988-9359 to learn more about Helping Paws’ programs and how to become involved.