ST. GEORGE — It was love at first sight when Iraq War veteran Travis “Tra” Vendela first met service dog-in-training Baylor.
“All the other dogs came up and sniffed, and they kind of lost interest, but Baylor came up and just kind of leaned against me and sat there for 20 minutes,” Vendela said of the pair’s fast friendship.
Vendela and the chocolate-brown labradoodle have been training with each other at the St. George-based nonprofit Loving Angel Service Dogs for about half a year.
Vendela lost his legs while serving in Iraq in 2007, and Baylor is learning to assist him with everyday tasks like picking up objects, holding doors open and flipping light switches.
Baylor is just one of eight puppy siblings that Loving Angel is currently training for handlers with special needs, ranging from autism and immobility to seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These are working dogs. They are bred to be working. They love to work, and that’s when they’re happy,” Loving Angel executive director Cathy Powell said of the eight eager labradoodles that she and a group of dedicated volunteers are training.
“We started it (Loving Angel) basically as a ministry,” Powell said, noting that the dogs are trained and placed completely free for military veterans and at a nominal fee for other people with special needs.
Powell, who has decades of experience training dogs, started the charity in 2012 with assistance from her husband, Hoagan Powell. The organization runs entirely on private donations for the years-long effort of training a litter from puppyhood to placement.
See video in media player above for story of Loving Angel and client testimonials
“We’re all volunteer,” she said. “None of us get paid. Everyone does it just out of love.”
The daily tasks of grooming, training, feeding, exercising, cleaning up after and playing with eight puppies is made possible by a diverse group of volunteers, from Boy Scouts who help with poop-scooping to full-time puppy raisers who take the dogs home with them.
“It’s my favorite volunteer job that I’ve ever had,” said Cindy Gilmore, a long-time volunteer with Loving Angel. “The best part is what the cause is all about – working with the dogs to help Cathy and Hoagy to help customize a dog for someone who isn’t as able as we are – we love doing that.”
Many of the people who eventually receive service dogs from Loving Angel suffer from crippling mental and physical conditions, and the help they receive from their dog can be life-changing.
“She’s helped me in so many ways, ways that I never imagined,” Debb Johnson said, describing Katie, the service dog she obtained from Loving Angel in December 2017 after the dog’s graduation.
Johnson, a retired Kindergarten teacher, is wheelchair-bound and gets help with everyday tasks from Katie, such as dressing and opening doors.
“I knew she would pick up things for me and pull off my socks and shoes but she’s also my best friend,” Johnson said.
Under Loving Angel’s philosophy, building interspecies friendships like the one between Katie and Johnson is one of the keys to training a successful service dog.
“When the partnership is created properly then the bond there is just incredible,” Powell said.
Loving Angel finds potential matches for service dogs very early on in the puppies’ lives, and handlers-in-training work with the dogs on a regular basis through the entire multiyear process.
That focus on early training is what attracted Senecca Corsetti to Loving Angel; she is currently training with a shaggy pup named Murphy.
Corsetti suffers from a condition that makes walking painful, and as a result, she gets around primarily by wheelchair. The 22-year-old recent graduate will soon be a math teacher, and she said Murphy will be especially helpful in the classroom.
“I don’t want to ask a student to pick up a pencil or an eraser every time I drop one,” she said, describing how Murphy will be by her side to help with such tasks.
“When you have a disability, you want your independence,” Corsetti said. “Murphy is my independence, really.”
A desire for more independence is one of the major reasons people reach out for service dogs.
Carolyn Bayly, another handler-in-training, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago, a condition that has increasingly affected her ability to walk and balance. She has become reliant on her husband and children to get around, but she said that will change when she and her dog, Little Joe, finish their training.
Bayly said she didn’t think it was fair to place the burden of her condition on her family.
“I wanted the freedom to go places myself and do things myself,” she said. “To know that Little Joe will allow me to be more independent is a huge relief.”
Beyond the support handlers receive specific to their condition, the dogs also provide emotional support to help cope with the challenges of their conditions.
“Every service dog that is placed, a huge part of their job is the emotional support,” Powell said. “They’re not emotional support dogs, but that’s a big part of it – being their friend. Being someone who has their best interest at all times.”
Powell noted that she doesn’t advertise her services because she already receives many more applications than she has dogs.
However, those interested in obtaining a puppy without service dog training may be in luck. The parents of the current litter-in-training, Duffy and Lucy, gave birth to another litter of eight additional labradoodle puppies last month.
The puppies will all be available for sale in August, with the proceeds going directly back into the organization.
“Duffy and Lucy make incredible litters,” Powell said. “Beautiful dogs – smart, happy and willing to please.”
Loving Angel is also always looking for more volunteers to help with any number of the tasks, such as brushing dogs, picking up poop, power washing the yard after training, helping with repairs or cutting meat treats.
“I love Cathy and the training that they do here,” said Gwyn Gable, a handler-in-training who also volunteers regularly. “I think anyone could be here and walk out a better person just being here for one day.”
Those who can’t volunteer their time may also make tax-deductible monetary donations to the organization, a way to support veterans and people with disabilities without hands-on involvement.
For information about volunteer opportunities, donating or purchasing a puppy, email Loving Angel Service Dogs at [email protected] or call 435-632-2482. More information can also be found on the organization’s website and puppy Facebook page.
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