It was a football stadium full of crowd favorites last night, including an honor guard of more than 30 Helping Paws service dogs.

Super Bowl LII kicks off on Sunday, but the Wednesday night competition in Saint Paul between the Wounded Warriors Amputee Football Team versus a team of former NFL players held significance for those playing and those watching. The 20 players on the WWAFT roster—veterans who lost a limb in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts—took on legends of pro football, including former Minnesota Vikings Rich Gannon, Robert Smith, Ben Leber, Sage Rosenfels, Todd Bouman, and Talance Sawyer.

Let’s cut to the chase: The Wounded Warriors extended their win streak to 18-0, defeating the NFL greats 63-42. 

The night was a demonstration of determination to overcome setbacks and persevere through obstacles, something the Helping Paws service dogs get familiar with every day as they work beside their lifelong partners. Wounded Warriors invited Helping Paws to be a presence at the game in an effort to highlight the need for service dogs for veterans. The dogs and their foster home trainers lined up as a welcome for the players’ introductory charge onto the field. The entrance and welcome ranked high in terms of lumps-in-the-throat moments.



A number of media outlets showcased the story. This video clip from KSTP shows the Helping Paws dogs:

Wounded Warriors Play NFL Legends.  



All photos courtesy of Steve McCuskey.





By Eileen Bohn, Director of Programs


Judy Michurski (Programs Department Administrative Coordinator) and I recently attended an Assistance Dogs International PTSD Trainers’ Symposium sponsored by America’s Vets Dogs and Warrior Connection. It was held in Gaithersburg, Maryland October 27 – 31. Over 160 people from the United States, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, Australia and England attended this conference. It was the first of this type of seminar for organizations that provide service dogs for Veterans and we are so grateful that we were able to participate. We learned so much that will benefit our program providing service dogs for Veterans that are affected by PTSD.

Topics covered included

  • the role of the mental health consultant in the placement of service dogs with Veterans
  • the variety of cues that can be used for a service dog for a Veteran
  • current research regarding placement of service dogs with Veterans
  • how to enroll your service dog in the Veterans Administration “dog of record” program plus resources at the Veterans Administration
  • information on suicide awareness. 

We came away with a sense of seriousness regarding the effects of PTSD and new ideas that will benefit the Veterans we serve. We also renewed acquaintances with people from other assistance dog organizations.

We were able to attend this symposium thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor.

Helping Paws has been a fully accredited member of Assistance Dogs International since 2007. 

On January 16, 2018 Assistance Dogs International approved new standards for programs that place service dogs with Veterans who have military-related PTSD. Eileen Bohn is a member of the ADI Accreditation Committee and was involved with the development and approval process.


Helping Paws service dogs train for all kinds of weather because they work in all kinds of weather.  Snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stay the dogs from performing needed tasks for their partners in life. Preparing them to do so is an ongoing part of the curriculum foster home trainers move through in working with each dog.

A certain number of tasks are particularly suited to the challenges of an Upper Midwest winter. We asked service dogs in training to demonstrate the more photogenic of their repertoire.  

Juneau embraces the “neither snow nor rain” motto as he collects mail to deliver to foster home trainer Corinne McCuskey. Service dogs learn to pick up items of all sizes, under all conditions. Notice that in this set of photos Juneau is also working against a street curb, an additional factor that can pose a challenge for someone in a wheelchair. 





Kevin and Kindle are retrieving items from puddles, an all-season hazard for people with mobility concerns.  Kevin has an item the size of a cell phone while Kindle is maneuvering to pick up an odd shape, a measuring cup. Service dogs train for a sequence that includes retrieving, holding an item without chewing it, and finally placing it into a hand when the person is ready to take it. They also carry items, a handy skill for winter especially.

Inside the training center classroom, Fulton demonstrates helping remove winter clothing, in this case a heavy glove. Service dogs can also put the clothing away or as Fulton shows, hold it until their partner is ready to take it.








Many more skills—fix it (untangle your own leash), better go now (urinate or defecate without delays), and more—make life easier when weather poses its challenges. One final skill demonstrates the forethought that goes into preparing each dog for each partner: This is Keio doing the “shimmy,” shaking his coat on command to clear it of snow before entering the house. 


Photos courtesy of Corinne and Steve McCuskey, LaDonna Seely and Ross Ruschmeyer.




Helping Paws Foster Home Trainers are in every way its “heroes behind the scenes.”  In this issue we bring three representative households front and center.

Karen and Erika Schmidt: Ella, Delta, and Laska

People in search of the “best volunteer gig” need only talk to Karen Schmidt.

“How can you do better than starting with a puppy?” she asks. “Becoming a Foster Home Trainer has far exceeded any expectations I may have had. I mean, people come up to me and say, ‘Thanks for what you are doing,’ and it’s just so embarrassing. They don’t realize how much I gain from the opportunity.”

Karen and daughter Erika are a potent training team. They began training Ella (Sailor x Callahan) in 2013, and followed her with Delta (Chester x Callahan) in 2015.  A close-knit group of Foster Home Trainers made the same choice: They all trained a “Callahan” Labrador Retriever puppy and moved right ahead as a group to train another set of “Callahan” puppies when given the chance. Karen and Erika are now training Laska (Chester x Karma) right alongside the set of friends they began with in 2013.

The three dogs from three litters clearly have an overlap in being Labrador Retrievers and sharing some genetic traits. The service of Sailor and Chester as sires for these litters was donated by Rob and Denise Babcock of The Captain’s Labradors. How is it to repeat the training process with the three dogs? “I have more than one child and I expect them to be different,” Karen says, “and each of these dogs is different too. Ella is enthusiastic and ready to go to work. It’s hard for her to chill,” she says, mentioning a specific Helping Paws cue that asks the dog to calmly wait for another task. “Delta is not as energetic. She is more relaxed and that chill factor is easy for her. Laska is a blend. She is eager, and just like most puppies chilling is not so easy. She is so smart and so clearly a problem-solver, though, and that makes her a lot of fun.”

“They are each challenging in different ways,” Erika adds. “But each of them can concentrate and get the job done.”  Getting the job done can be eye-opening for others: Erika’s friends from high school have realized how much their own family dogs are capable of doing once they engage with a service dog in training. “They think their dogs can barely retrieve a ball,” Erika says. “It’s pretty mind boggling when they see what even a puppy like Laska can do.”

The Schmidts think training together gives the dogs a tangible advantage in one of the very first training tasks. “The puppies figure out very quickly to pay attention to whomever it is at the other end of the leash,” Karen notes. “They don’t look for cues or treats from anyone else. When we trade dogs in class with other trainers, it makes it easier on the puppy and the trainer.” Erika takes the trainer role in the weekly classes at Helping Paws and both mother and daughter train at other times.

Training out in public—and interacting with people who see the dogs—carries its own rewards as well as trials. “We see parents educating young children and children educating parents,” Karen notes. They have had people question why they have a service dog when “clearly they have no disability” and conversely assume Karen is a veteran with a working PTSD service dog. To the question “How can you give the dog up?” (an oft-asked question) they convey that giving the dog to someone is the entire goal.

Beyond the goal of contributing to someone’s life, life-changing rewards also show up in unexpected areas. “This has always been about doing something together,” Karen offers. “What we didn’t anticipate is learning so much that we didn’t already know and building these strong and lasting friendships.”

Richard and Fran Greelis: Duncan and Morgan

People training service dogs get asked a lot of questions. Richard Greelis would not have predicted one of the first questions he would face was, “Do you like beer?”

Richard and Fran Greelis hold a somewhat unique spot in the Helping Paws cadre of Foster Home Trainers. Duncan, the first Golden Retriever they trained, was donated as a puppy by breeder Beth Johnson of Summit Golden Retrievers, and was officially linked for training classes with the Do Litter of Labrador Retrievers bred by Helping Paws. Almost all other service dogs in training have been bred for their role by Helping Paws. Duncan arrived in time to be part of the celebration when the Do Litter puppies first went to their foster trainer homes, and Richard and Fran met the group they would train with weekly. The beer question arose shortly thereafter and it was an auspicious question. “I had never really been to a beer pub before,” Richard says. “Now, two years later, I think it’s up to 50 or 60.”

It turns out that visits to beer pubs offer multiple advantages to multiple parties. “When you show up with five or six service dogs in vests, you attract a lot of attention. It’s an opportunity for us to do public relations for service dogs. We pretty much decide in advance if we will let people pet the dogs. We always let kids pet at least one. And then we can educate people about why the dogs cannot be petted, that they need to concentrate and work and not be distracted by seeking to be petted.”

Now retired, Richard had previously trained police dogs as an officer for the Bloomington, Minnesota police force. He says the training process for Helping Paws service dogs is quite different from the techniques used to train police dogs but the logic behind that fits: Each kind of dog is doing a very different job. He also readily admits that the companionship of Duncan and Morgan are a big side benefit in volunteering to train them.

“We love Duncan inside and out,” he says.  Knowing the skilled Golden Retriever would be placed with his forever partner this fall (Duncan went to his new home earlier this week) Richard and Fran welcomed Morgan as their next project. The young puppy is from the Music Litter (Teller x Augustina), born in April. The stud service of Teller was donated by Jane Docter of Docmar Goldens. “We prepared ourselves fully, telling each other there was no way she could be as pretty or smart or anything near to Duncan’s capabilities. And here she is, sneaking her way into our hearts.”

Morgan is destined to become a breeding dog for Helping Paws, a role for her that will also bring a new role for the Greelis household. “We talked to people who have done this before, as we are total rookies at having puppies,” Richard says. “We know it is a huge commitment, a lot of work, but everyone we spoke to relayed it is just the greatest experience.”

The experience of training with Duncan in public underscored Richard’s reasons for volunteering in the first place. He corresponded with Luis Carlos Montalvan, the advocate for veterans and PTSD service dogs who wrote Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him. He also perceived what seemed to be restrictions for people with service dogs enjoying restaurants or other public places. He and Fran volunteered to train, and with Duncan at his side, Richard says it is the questions from others that point to the nuances of what it means to need a service dog.

“People look at me with Duncan and ask if I am training him,” he says. “That seems on the surface to be an innocent question, but it really forces me to explain myself. What if I were a veteran and he was my PTSD service dog? The question has now put that veteran on the spot, forcing him or her to explain. That’s not a comfortable situation for anyone much less a veteran who is trying to heal from PTSD.”

The nuances seem at work in other situations as well, reinforcing that education and communication is a two-way street. “We go to a grocery store and Duncan can rise and place a credit card on the counter,” Richard relates. “Except that one day the cashier told me another customer had complained that it was not hygienic and they would stop shopping in that store. That had never occurred to me as an outcome.”

Richard and Fran will pass Duncan’s leash to his forever partner later this week with the full knowledge they are also passing forward the gifts brought about by two-plus years of dedicated training. They can look ahead to a different path with Morgan, knowing her path will be unique and also full of promise.

Cecilia Grass-Neary: Milton

Cecilia Grass-Neary is not new to training dogs but she is new to training a Helping Paws service dog. Milton came into her life in June, when he and the other puppies from the Music Litter (Teller x Augustina) went home with their new Foster Home Trainers. The Loyal, Music, and Nice litters, all born within three weeks of each other, train together in one of three classes. Cecilia and Milton are part of the Thursday evening class.

Cecilia finds some poetic justice in having Milton in her care. She has trained Golden Retrievers to compete in obedience show rings, including her dog Bogart.  Bogart’s breeding is related to Milton’s through their sires.

“I know just how much dogs have brought into my life,” she says. “They offer unconditional love and can become that rock in your life, the being who provides total security in a moment.” Her own experiences prompted her to consider training for Helping Paws but she was “on the fence” about taking on the commitment of two-plus years.

“Then I attended an Open House at Helping Paws,” she says. “I met other Foster Home Trainers and I heard graduates who have service dogs talk about how their lives changed. I could see what these dogs meant to the people there.”

Only three months into working with Milton, Cecilia is already perceiving changes in the puppy and herself.  “I am learning to communicate more clearly,” she says, “and I am being introduced to how I even look at people differently now. When I take Milton out—for example, to a restaurant on a Sunday morning—I have older people approach who want to talk. I can see this dog in his vest already opening up people’s hearts. It’s amazing.”

Cecilia is already looking ahead to Milton’s capacity to make a difference for someone she has yet to meet.  “You know you are going to say goodbye to this amazing animal,” she offers, “and it’s not at all negative. The whole point is that this is a good experience for everyone.”

It may be fair to say that what Cecilia and Milton are learning together epitomizes much of what the Helping Paws service dogs offer out to the world at large. If what Cecilia can point to has occurred in only three months, what is yet to be? That unknown quantity and quality are what the Foster Home Trainers and their dogs in training are preparing for, with a new set of eyes and some puppy enthusiasm to mark the way ahead.

Four new teams are training at Helping Paws, preparing to launch into a full new life together. This class of up-and-coming graduates symbolizes Helping Paws in some ways: The dogs come from four different litter classes (April, Color, Do, and Edge) and the people from different walks of life. Included in the mix is the pairing of AJ and Pam, a clinical psychologist with People Incorporated, where AJ will be a Facility Dog. Helping Paws worked with People Incorporated for more than a year to find the perfect match, and a week’s “internship” for AJ, where she went home with Pam each night, demonstrated the fit had been found.

Together, the teams are learning to smoothly operate with the more than 70 cues for tasks the dogs already know. They have worked together in downtown Hopkins, Ridgedale Mall, and Home Depot, trips that include practice loading and unloading from vehicles. Health care, grooming, the rights and responsibilities of public access, and every other subject Helping Paws instructors have learned to include have been part of the agenda. 

A key day for everyone—graduates, service dogs, Foster Home Trainers and staff—is the second Wednesday of the three-week period. On this day, the dogs go home with their new lifetime partner, moving officially from their foster homes to their permanent residences. It is an emotional day and an exciting one.  We thought you might like to know how it went last week for Brenda and Duncan, Jennifer and Elvis, and Vicky and Chase.  

Brenda and Duncan

In his first night home with Brenda, Duncan navigated through multiple doors and maneuvered on and off a small elevator to reach an apartment door with a “Welcome Home” sign placed at his eye level and featuring his picture. The two shared a calm first night marked by special music, a massage for the new resident, and kibble Brenda had baked beforehand so that the aroma greeted her new partner on entering.  When morning arrived, Duncan proceeded to find and retrieve his working pack from the next room, bringing it to Brenda to begin the day.

“With all that medications and illness have taken away, I now welcome more hair and more teeth to brush,” says Brenda.  “I am learning to speak Duncan-ese.”

Duncan’s Foster Home Trainers are Richard and Fran Greelis. He was donated to Helping Paws by Beth Johnson of Summit Golden Retrievers and trained as a member of the Do Litter.

 Jennifer and Elvis

The service dog Jennifer already terms a “rock star” helped her negotiate steps and demonstrated he quickly recognized which door now means “home” on his very first night there.  Elvis’ support extends to more tangible effects for Jennifer: “I slept solidly for three straight hours, and I cannot remember when I had more than an hour at a time before,” she says. “Just knowing he was there in case something happened makes all the difference already.”  

Elvis’ Foster Home Trainers are Pauli Jackson and Dom Beckmann and Jenny Beem. He is from the Edge Litter (Max x Myrtle): Caretaker Home Bev and Herb Swedeen and stud services donated by Royalty British Kennels. 

 Vicky and Chase

What Vicky calls “this new journey in our life” began with a first night in a hotel room. She and her family live in outstate Minnesota, a fair commute to the Helping Paws training center. Chase was expected by the hotel staff—and complimented on his appearance—but it was his attentiveness even as he was very aware of all that was surrounding him that Vicky noted most. “He responds so quickly even to whispers,” she says, and after a full day of work Chase also made clear that yes, “the ball that squeaks” is indeed his favorite recreation.

Chase’s Foster Home Trainer is Anne Fleagle. He is from the Color Litter (Cutty x Callahan): Caretaker Home Judy and Steve Michurski and stud services donated by The Captain’s Labradors.

We will celebrate fifteen new graduate teams with a formal ceremony this Friday, October 6, at 7:00 pm at Hopkins High School.  All are welcome to join us for the passing of the leash from Foster Home Trainers to each new lifetime partner.

The American Veterinary Medical Association recently released a white paper titled Assistance Animals: Rights of Access and the Problem of Fraud. Although the paper is not an official policy position from the association, it is an exploratory step from the organization’s Animal Welfare Division to prompt discussion on the role of veterinarians with service dogs and the issue of fake service dogs. The paper is available in its entirety at AVMA Public Policy/Animal Welfare Division.

The peer-reviewed white paper examines numerous aspects of the difficulties posed by individuals “fraudulently identifying their pet as an assistance animal to gain access to public places or avoid pet fees.” It examines current state and federal laws, suggesting that more uniform definitions in federal legislation and more consistency across state laws could be constructive. The paper goes so far as to suggest that “The AVMA tracks such legislative efforts and is well-positioned to provide guidance in how such bills, if being developed, should be structured.”

The paper also notes that “With more and more pet owners falsifying their pet as an assistance animal and bringing them into stores, restaurants, and other public places, it is interfering with assistance animals’ jobs and may potentially limit where a person with disabilities may take their assistance animal. The extra animals make it more difficult for an assistance animal to maneuver which, in turn, can make it more difficult and dangerous for the handler to move. It also puts the assistance animal at a greater risk of being attacked by another, potentially fraudulent, animal.”

The AVMA Annual Convention in July also passed a policy on “The Veterinarian’s Role in Supporting Appropriate Selection and Use of Service, Assistance and Therapy Animals.” One aspect of this policy notes that a veterinarian examining a service dog “…can ask what tasks the dog performs but it is discriminatory to charge more for the examination should it take longer than usual because of attention to the dog’s role.”

Additional information is available on the AVMA website

We like to say that every success story at Helping Paws begins with a puppy. It may be safe to say it begins before the puppies are even born, when Caretaker Home volunteers agree to give puppies their first home, to nurture them through the first eight weeks of life. Veterinarians stay on call for emergencies, Helping Paws staff put in extra miles and hours with the arrival and development of each litter, yet it is the volunteers who embrace the cares and concerns for these vulnerable new lives who really provide the jump start to every Helping Paws success.

Our three most recent litters arrived within three weeks of each other. Twenty-six puppies came into the Helping Paws program that fast, and just that fast three Caretaker Homes immersed themselves into waiting, whelping, and worrying about these small bundles of promise. Their stories are very different but their outcomes are similar: Healthy puppies who have now moved on to their Foster Home Trainers to begin the journey as service dogs in training.

Jill Rovner with Karma: The Loyal Litter

Puppies were absolutely not in Jill Rovner’s plan until she met Karma. The 5-year-old Labrador Retriever was already an experienced mother as the dam of the Game Litter, born in 2016 when The Captain’s Labradors provided both Karma and the services of their stud dog Chester to Helping Paws. When a new Caretaker Home was needed, Jill agreed to welcome Karma IF she could have the puppies somewhere else. “That responsibility and all the time needed seemed overwhelming,” she remembers. “Karma is the first dog I have had on my own.”

Arrangements were made and Karma moved in. As their subsequent partnership evolved, Jill realized that life without Karma for even a few months was a nonstarter. She prepared for puppies. Her sister and niece committed their help and support. As a member of the development staff at Helping Paws and a first-time puppy wrangler, Jill was perfectly positioned to be guaranteed by the breeding program staff that without equivocation, she would not be the only human present when the puppies began arriving. It was her biggest concern.

Karma had more confidence in Jill than that.

Late in the evening of March 27, Helping Paws staffers called it a day for anticipating the arrival of puppies. Careful to the extreme, they had reassured themselves and Jill that Karma would wait at least until the next morning.

Karma’s daughter Laska Dorothy was born within the next hour.

Although everyone but Karma was caught off guard, rookie Jill managed to juggle a cell phone call of “Help! They’re coming!” with rubbing the puppy for drying and warmth. She wisely positioned Laska Dorothy’s face so Karma could lick open her airways. Eileen Bohn and Judy Michurski put on the afterburners driving to Jill’s house, arriving in time to nurture each of the six future service puppies in training successfully born into the wee hours of the next day.

“I figured out in a flash that I am simply Karma’s assistant. She is a great mother and knew what to do more than I did,” Jill says.

Still, Jill was needed. One pup developed a worrisome external abscess in the first week, prompting an immediate trip to Inver Grove Heights Animal Hospital and the vets who remain on call for Helping Paws. Another had temporary issues with digesting a new food, and a third suffered a leg injury that kept him from seeking to nurse. Add in some more routine vet visits for ongoing puppy care and Jill stayed busy with the tender loving care part of having puppies.

The puppies thrived and their capacity to play and charm took over as the prime experience. Jill set up a schedule of people visiting to help socialize the puppies, including visitors grieving other losses that were alleviated at least temporarily by cuddling puppies.

“Even with all the work,” she says, “watching each personality develop and seeing the pack interact was an amazing experience. The power of nature and the constant happiness those puppies provided is something I still think about all the time.

“The puppies brought me joy many times every single day. I am so glad I changed my mind and didn’t miss out on Karma as an amazing mother and having a house full of puppies. Best of all I know these pups will go on to change other lives.”



Gloria and David Sather with Augustina: The Music Litter

Three weeks into life with ten new Music Litter puppies in the house, caregiver Gloria Sather found the biggest moment of all. “I was lying down near the puppy pen, a bit teary-eyed and totally exhausted. At that moment a puppy walked toward me and opened his eyes. It was the first time I had seen any eyes open up, and I went from feeling the lowest of the lows to the highest peak moment, just like that.” And thus, she adds, she rediscovered the memorable moments that make bringing these puppies into the world an exciting proposition.

Gloria and David Sather first encountered Helping Paws through another Foster Home Trainer, Carol Lamoureux. They watched her work with Rocket, impressed with the dog’s skills. With Carol’s encouragement, they applied to be a Caretaker Home shortly after their beloved Labrador died. Six months later, they began training 8-week-old Augustina, a Golden Retriever from the April Litter. From the start, “Stina” was destined to become a breeding dog once she completed training.

Bred to Teller, whose services were donated by Jane Docter from Docmar Goldens, Stina produced 10 puppies via cesarean section on April 7. The veterinary staff at Inver Grove Heights Animal Hospital stepped in to support a healthy outcome for the 7 males and 3 females.

The first three weeks of puppy life are generally easier on the human counterparts, as the dam provides the needed care. Unfortunately, in the first week Stina developed mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue. A 2 x 3-inch open wound near a nipple had to be protected by a washcloth every time the puppies fed. As that wound healed, a second wound opened up on another nipple; this one was smaller but still needed protection from, as Gloria puts it, “40 small feet with sharp nails.”  With ten puppies seeking a spot to nurse, the Sathers managed the real estate issue by allowing five puppies to nurse at a time, having Stina roll over between cohorts.

Ultimately Stina healed. For the next five weeks 10 puppies—carrying musical litter names such as Calypso, Tango, Charleston, and Hip Hop—wrestled, explored, and starred on their mother’s Facebook page. David Sather was able to work from home many days, supplanted only when daughter Karin could write her thesis and watch puppies as well.

The Sathers were also joined by the Lunch Ladies, a group who offered to step in on days when no one else could be home.

Helping Paws retired Stina as a breeding dog rather than take a risk of her developing mastitis with a subsequent litter. The Sathers embraced additional rounds of puppies, however, and are now training Stina’s daughter Mesa, who will become the next generation of breeding dog.

“Day to day, it’s fun to see the puppies develop and grow,” says Gloria, “and the workload for the humans is very real. You need the flexibility to have someone home when they are here. In the end, the real heroes are Stina and the other mothers: Everyone who benefits from these puppies owes the mothers a debt of gratitude for taking what those sharp little teeth dish out.” 


Susan and Mike Martiny Family with Lanie: The Nice Litter

Thirty puppies, four litters and spreading the joy could sum up the experiences of the Susan and Mike Martiny family as a Caretaker Home.

But it wouldn’t tell the whole story. Add in two generations of Martinys  volunteering as Foster Home Trainers and at least two family friends also volunteering in that capacity, and the summation of the Martiny Effect for Helping Paws becomes more fully complete.

The Nice Litter is the Martiny’s fourth time as a Caretaker Home. Golden Retriever Elise provided three litters for Helping Paws, including the Blue Litter that arrived in 2014. Dogs from those litters are now graduated and working as service dogs or demonstration dogs. “It was long enough ago,” Susan Martiny says, “that I still had to call to ask a few questions” before Lanie (an Elise daughter) produced puppies April 16. The Nice Litter is sired by Briggs, whose services were provided by Judy Campbell of Elm Creek Golden Retrievers.

Lanie did offer up at least one surprise for the veteran caregivers. Her ten puppies arrived on the Easter holiday—a bit early—with the last two puppies delivered by C-section at Inver Grove Heights Animal Hospital. One result was that the pizza ordered in created a special holiday feast for the family and Helping Paws breeding staff.

Besides puppies, it is children who mark the litter experiences for the Martinys. They initially wanted to volunteer in a way that included the entire family. The first step was becoming Foster Home Trainers for Mac, a service dog graduated in 2008. “We could fit that into our regular life,” Susan explains. With the Nice Litter, the family tradition continued as 8-year-old Elizabeth helped with puppy care and adult daughter Kaitlin now takes on becoming a Foster Home Trainer for Nessie, Lanie’s daughter.

“We love sharing the puppies with people outside the family,” Susan says. “It seems so few people have ever seen puppies so young, and the bonus is they get to learn about Helping Paws when they come to visit.” This time around, Elizabeth’s dance team joined together to put socks on 20 empty water bottles that served as enticing and crunchy puppy toys.

What advice can the veterans of puppy care offer for future Caretaker Homes?  “This is such a cool experience for everyone involved,” Susan says, “but it’s good to know that for 12 weeks, this is what you will do: It will be four weeks of vet visits before the puppies arrive, and then eight weeks of puppy care—including cleaning around them and laundry—on a 24/7 schedule.

“I am so thankful I trained a service dog before we signed on as a Caretaker Home. Knowing what the trainers will do, knowing what that experience includes, has been such a benefit to caring for these puppies and then watching them go forward into the world.”

[To see more about the Loyal, Music, and Nice litters, please see their photo galleries in the About Us section of this website. To learn how to become a Caretaker Home, please see the Breeding Program section of this website.]

—Photos by Steve McCuskey, Judy Michurski, Gloria Sather and Mary Gustafson.

“What happens to dogs who leave the program?” is a fair question people direct toward Helping Paws. Sometimes health issues arise for the dogs or a young dog’s personality fits a different career than the one-on-one focus required for a service dog. No matter the reason, very often the people-pleasing Golden or Labrador Retrievers move on to serve in many other ways. Skills intact, sensitivities on alert, they continue to change lives even as they change careers. We highlight three such dogs below, with full awareness they represent many more who are doing the good deeds good dogs do every day.


Ziggy may come last in the alphabet scheme of things but he holds a prime spot in many people’s hearts. Now seven, this Golden Retriever was initially placed with a graduate after completing Helping Paws training. It turned out this was not the right career for Ziggy and he was retired. Adopted by Heike Jensen, Ziggy went back to work immediately: Heike fell a few short weeks after bringing Ziggy home, losing consciousness in the process. Luckily she had trained Ziggy to look for her cell phone anywhere in the two story house. When Heike awoke, Ziggy brought her the phone for an emergency call to 911.

Heike saw the possibilities in the huge-hearted dog (he chooses people rather than dogs when at the dog park) and she trained with him for therapy dog certification. He subsequently began visiting children’s hospitals weekly, entertaining children in their rooms when their parents take a break for dinner. Invited up, he cuddles in bed so securely that everyone else can leave the room while Ziggy stays.

He also joins nursing home residents each Wednesday for bingo games, retrieving the red or blue stampers as needed. Nurses told Heike of one resident who had not arisen out of bed or gone down to dinner for several months as his illness progressed. Ziggy began visiting the resident for 20 minutes each week. After five or six weeks, the resident asked nurses for help to get dressed and ready for dinner, and proceeded to eat together again with other residents.  In another instance, Ziggy’s regular visits touched a resident so deeply that he included provisions for Ziggy’s health care in his will.

Heike notes that people of every age get a boost of happiness when Ziggy appears for a visit. “He makes them forget about their illness for a while,” she says.



She is the Belle of the ball, the keynote speaker, the star in the spotlight and, well, an attention hog. For Belle, “demo” is the best four-letter word she’s heard.

Some years ago Lu Ann Finnegan’s daughter asked if they could get a dog. Feeling the loss of her husband mightily, and anticipating her child leaving for college in a few years, Lu Ann pondered the choices. She offered to dog sit for Helping Paws, to take care of dogs temporarily for a few days at a time. Instead she was persuaded to take on life with Belle, a puppy in need of a Foster Home Trainer. Neither Belle or Lu Ann ever looked back. 

Belle found her ultimate calling as a demonstration dog and ambassador for Helping Paws. For nine years, and generally at least once per month, she accompanied Lu Ann to schools, community gatherings, the State Fair, and other large and small public places to show people the skills service dogs can provide. Lu Ann says Belle seems to miss going to work every day, and she “lights up and loves the attention” a demonstration brings with it. Over the years, the Golden Retriever also made clear that she has a favorite cue to demonstrate. “She seems to sense who needs a ‘snuggle’ (a gentle face-to-face hug in dog terms) and makes a beeline to that person,” Lu Ann says. “Sometimes the people cry. It’s a privilege to witness the comfort that Belle can provide.” At a big venue like the State Fair, Belle often chooses to snuggle with someone in a wheelchair.  And if Lu Ann, an eloquent advocate for Helping Paws, speaks a bit too long in her dog’s opinion, Belle “grines” (half growls, half whines) to remind her there are visuals—namely, Belle doing her work—to provide as well.

From the start, Belle has been the gift that keeps on giving. “She changed my life,” Lu Ann says. “I know what Belle gives and what I can describe touches someone’s life in a positive way each time. To see the joy that Belle brings reflected in others is such a gift.”



Who knew a potential hip problem could turn out so well?  Otis was officially pulled away from the Helping Paws training program at age 18 months, when the program’s mandatory veterinary evaluation of his hips showed some potential for later problems. He stayed healthy, but Helping Paws is committed to ensuring the best interest of every match.  Knowing he could work somewhere in the community, Foster Home Trainers Lynne Raymo and Alan Kezmoh continued training Otis (and are now training their fourth dog for Helping Paws.) He completed certification as a therapy dog and Canine Good Citizen.

Lynne began taking Otis to a supplemental education program for autistic children, dropping him off weekly to stay with program staff as they worked with the children. The results were hard to miss: More than one child spoke for the first time because of Otis. Therapists taught the children hand signals that Otis also knew—drop, sit, come—and the children joined those signals with any vocalization they chose. Otis responded to any word paired with the signal he already recognized and the effects of being able to verbally communicate, as the children perceived it, were profound. Lynne tells the story of arriving later than planned one day with Otis by her side, only to have a small girl come flying forward calling “I want Otis with me!” Staff and parents began crying and a slightly bewildered Lynne apologized for being late. That was not at all the full story: The greeting for Otis was the first time this small girl had ever spoken, much less chained words together in a sentence. It was a breakthrough moment brought on by a big dog with a wagging tail and profound capacity to pay attention.

Otis also volunteered seven years at Guardian Angels Care Center and Guardian Angels by the Lake in Elk River. Each week, he worked alongside staff at these long term, transitional, and memory care facilities. Three hours each Wednesday—he didn’t take a break—and in the course of the day, Otis helped the staff even as he comforted the residents. Staff could cuddle on the floor with him when needed. In return he ate their doughnuts.  Otis visited a woman resident so regularly that he could find her room on his own. When she died, he did not approach the room again.

After each visit this dog doing yeoman work would sleep deeply for hours. As Lynne notes, he never took a rest from the emotions of the people who needed him when he was there. When the day finally came for Otis to retire, one of his nurse friends watched him head down the hall for the last time and voiced what everyone else was likely feeling.

“There,” she said, “there goes my heart.”

The following story appeared in CityDogs Magazine in March, 2017. We appreciate CityDogs permission to reproduce it here. 

Six-year old Golden Retriever Jed and his human handler pal Carl Ringberg were the first graduates of a Helping Paws Veterans with PTSD program designed to train assistance dogs to help veterans affected with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since 2014 Jed has been with Carl in his job as a senior district fleet manager with Waste Management, helping him manage workplace stressors and fight off the emotional numbness associated with living with PTSD.

Carl has what most would consider a stressful job at Waste Management, overseeing maintenance for a large fleet of trucks and a team of technicians. Carl searched for two years to find a dog like Jed. “First and foremost, you have to apply to Helping Paws to show interest,” explains Carl, “then the veteran has an in-home interview and has to get referrals from a physician and psychologist.” The journey for a veteran with PTSD to get a dog like Jed is well worth it once there’s a match, which is when the veteran and dog start training to learn to work together to manage PTSD.

“There is a training process where the dog and the veteran work one-on-one, every Saturday for three months, and then the dog goes home with the veteran to live full-time,” says Carl.

Jed showed some early separation anxiety issues that caused Helping Paws to question if they would be able to place him. All turned out well when Carl came along. “I needed the consistent touch from the dog and so did he, Jed needed me. We were a match made in heaven and we bonded right away,” says Carl. Jed helps Carl at work and in life by demanding attention whenever he senses that Carl is anxious, jittery, or losing focus. 

Jed also helps Carl feel safe in crowded places, and often will put himself as a barrier between Carl and approaching strangers. He can lead Carl out of a crowd on command. 

“Jed does a great job hanging out with me at the Waste Management office,” Carl offers. “All of my co-workers love having Jed at work. He tends to wander down the hall every now and then to say hi to all the office people.” The sweet face and loving nature of the beautiful Golden Retriever helps Carl remain calm as he slowly re-acclimates to life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He wakes me up from nightmares and jumps up on me to lick my face until I wake up, even if I push him off,” Carl shares. Helping Paws worked with Jed to help him learn a lot of different skills designed to help Carl feel safe and calm. “The utmost important job Jed does for me is teach me to fight the emotional numbness you get from PTSD. By being able to hug Jed and give him the love that he needs, he is in turn making it easier for me to give my children the hugs and love they need.”

Carl feels blessed to have Jed, and together they make a special duo. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD affects between 11-20% of men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and 12% of Gulf War veterans. Organizations such as Helping Paws, along with supportive companies like Waste Management, make it possible for veterans to thrive at work with a little help from specially-trained dogs like Jed. To learn more about Helping Paws visit their website at


About the Author

Rebecca Sanchez lives in Seattle with her three dogs and is a published author and nationally recognized leader in exploring the human-animal bond. Known as The Pet Lifestyle Guru™ Rebecca firmly believes “We need animals as much as they need us!” To showcase her love of all things dog, Rebecca is the founder, chief creative officer, and brilliant mind behind the award-winning social media star MattieDog, who happens to be ‘A Little Dog Making A Big Impact In This World!’ See more at

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Helping Paws staff and volunteers provide continuing outreach services and care to graduates and the community at large. A brief list of recent events follows.

Graduate Teams Saturday. Fourteen graduates came from near and far to enjoy complimentary dog grooming, lunch, and hear Dr. Jen Quast from Inver Grove Heights Animal Hospital speak on caring for service dogs as they age. A gathering is also planned for summer.

All Dog Night brought more than 60 people to hear graduates speak about what works and what may not when they receive a service dog. Graduates shared some moving stories to highlight the effect of the dogs. When asked what additional cues were needed, however, the sole response was Chad Woods’ wry comment of “Type on a computer?”

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson invited input from Helping Paws as a result of a recent Supreme Court ruling that supported the right to sue a school for refusing to allow a service dog in a kindergarten classroom. Swanson filed a brief in support of the parents’ case. Helping Paws graduates Angela Folie and Ryan Haugen met with Swanson to discuss the evolution of training practices for dogs who serve veterans with PTSD and people with physical disabilities.

An Open House for Veterans attracted eight prospective applicants to meet with current veteran graduates, their service dogs, and work with a number of Helping Paws service dogs in training. Veterans receiving a service dog will go through a training process this summer with actual placement of the service dog in August.