Lending a Paw

Dog lovers on Bradley’s campus won’t have a hard time finding a furry friend on the Hilltop, thanks to college roommates Michelle Kosner Yuen ’09 DPT ’12 and Brandi Arnold Weyers ’10. What people might not realize, however, is the dogs are there to learn how to assist people with disabilities and behave in a school environment as part of the pair’s nonprofit Paws Giving Independence (PGI).

PGI’s goal is to provide more independence for the dogs’ owners who have mobility issues or are wheelchair bound. The canine companions do simple tasks like picking up dropped items, turning on lights or opening doors, ones that would be difficult or impossible without assistance.

In 2012, Yuen and Weyers launched Wags for Mags to involve Bradley students in the service dogs’ training, providing a great learning environment for dogs placed with a high school or college student. PGI benefitted further by Wags for Mags helping to recruit volunteers. The former roommates also have a similar partnership at Illinois State University called Indy-pendence Service Dogs and at Logan Correctional Center known as Helping Paws.

The nonprofit also trains dogs to aid with medical alert or to work as a facility dog in a clinical setting. Facility dogs are often placed in schools with a counselor to help calm students or at a rehab facility to help patients work on skills like throwing a ball or brushing the dog. Steve Tippett, chair of Bradley’s physical therapy program, has added one of PGI’s dogs to the program’s pro-bono clinic. Faculty advisor to Wags for Mags, Stacie Bertram, has been training the dog for the clinic.

Their day jobs in the medical field keep Yuen and Weyers busy but they still find time to dedicate up to 40 hours a week to PGI. Yuen is a pediatric physical therapist and has a facility dog that works with her patients in animal-assisted therapy. Weyers serves as an emergency room nurse.

While it can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 for a service dog, PGI places their dogs for free. The dogs come from local shelters, and volunteers do all the training. PGI also relies heavily on private donations and grants to support their mission.

The pair got the idea for PGI during Yuen’s internship at a horse farm where she helped with their service dog program; Weyers eventually joined her. After their rewarding experience and not finding a similar program in the Peoria area, they decided to fill the need. With help from countless faculty and through Bradley’s Project Springboard New Venture competition Yuen and Weyers were able to launch the nonprofit.

For two non-business majors, learning how to run a nonprofit was not easy. They relied heavily on the advice and guidance of their professors, Project Springboard and on Yuen’s mom, Donna Kosner, who is also a Co-Director who has a strong passion for animal rescue and has fostered over 100 dogs.

“PGI wouldn’t exist without Bradley,” said Yuen. “We are very grateful.”

The geographical reach of PGI is limited to Central Illinois because during the 12-15 months of training, Yuen and Weyers hold a weekly meeting for all their volunteers and owners. These check-ins involve basic training — sit and stay and service tasks — lights and doors. Since its inception, PGI has rescued 128 dogs.

They also encourage current students who may have similar entrepreneurial thoughts. “If you have an idea, use the resources available at Bradley University to execute (it).” said Weyers. “The smallest things can make the biggest difference. We had no idea that PGI would get this big, and it wouldn’t have without the support and encouragement of Bradley University and our many professors.”

Michelle Yuen Brandi Weyers with service dogs. (Photo provided)

A PGI Service Dog with its owner

Bradley's Wags For Mags students.