Pups and patients help each other

March 2, 2012

By Tim Belter ’13

Right around the holidays, Dr. Stacie Bertram, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, had to give up Marley, the yellow Labrador retriever she had raised for the past three years. It was tough to do, but the situation softened the sting; Marley had just been placed as a service dog for a young boy with autism and seizures.

“It tugs at your heart to give the dog up, but when you see what a service dog can do for someone, it’s not so hard,” Dr. Bertram said. “It was really heartwarming to see the family work with her. The boy would light up when Marley came around.”

Marley was trained through Paws Giving Independence, a Bradley student-run nonprofit organization that takes dogs from area shelters and trains them as service dogs. PGI places the dogs with a foster family that cares for and trains the dog until the dog is a certified service dog. The dog is then placed with a family in need, free of charge.

“PGI wanted all families to be able to benefit from service dogs, regardless of their financial means,” Dr. Bertram said.

Most of the dogs come from animal shelters in the area. The group tests dogs for temperament and other traits, then selects certain dogs that can be trained to perform a wide variety of service functions.

“Dogs increase independence and bridge the gap between those with disabilities and those without,” said Michele Kosner, a physical therapy doctoral student and one of the founders of PGI.

Three Bradley students founded PGI in 2008. Originally a student organization, the group has now become a fully-fledged nonprofit organization, though it still works extensively with Bradley.

“Bradley has been really good about letting us have dogs on campus to train,” said Kosner.

On campus, the dogs get to socialize and learn tasks like opening a handicap door. For group training sessions, PGI uses space in the Markin Center. Student volunteers assist in training the dogs and working with the foster families and potential client families. PGI has even helped physical therapy professors Dr. Dawn Hall and Dr. Brenda Pratt study the effects of service dogs on adolescents and young adults.

“The students learn a lot and the community benefits,” said Dr. Bertram.

Despite the bittersweet goodbye to Marley, Dr. Bertram and her family loved training her and can hardly wait to do it again.

“We’ll definitely do it again,” she said. “Hopefully this summer we’ll get another one.”

For more information and to apply to volunteer with PGI, visit http://www.givingindependence.org/.