Puppies with Purpose helps train puppies to become service dogs.
In a roundabout way, TerriAnn Tucker-Warhover’s background in veterinary medicine led her to start Puppies with Purpose nine years ago.
TerriAnn, a veterinarian licensed in Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia for more than 30 years, has vetted and raised a number of service dogs.
She was also inspired by 4 Paws for Ability, an Ohio-based service dog organization that pioneered the development of Puppies with Purpose. The non-profit organization helps train puppies to be service dogs.
“Our Puppies with Purpose program enables students and the Columbia community to raise puppies, socialize, and prepare them for more rigorous training from CHAMP service dogs,” says TerriAnn.
CHAMP Assistance Dogs (the first part stands for “Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities”) is the umbrella organization of Puppies with Purpose. CHAMP provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities and has an extensive matching process in place to ensure that all dogs are compatible with the people they support.
Puppies with Purpose’s work goes beyond their commitment to preparing puppies for service dogs. The group is working to create a disabled-conscious community and alleviate the drastic shortage of service dogs in the country. CHAMP is also one of the few providers that provides recipients with service dogs without change and also removes financial barriers.
“A service dog can cost up to $ 30,000,” says TerriAnn.
Raising the puppy
Many volunteers are veterinary or health care students, and there are three categories of volunteer: general volunteer, puppy sitter, and puppy rearing.
A general volunteer attends meetings and events, and may serve on nonprofit, personal relationships, and fundraising committees.
“Everyone starts out as a volunteer and works their way up,” says TerriAnn.
Anyone interested in the direct care of dogs can become a puppy sitter or puppy breeder after demonstrating their qualification as a volunteer.
“We usually get the dogs – which are usually Golden Retrievers and Labradors – between 7 and 8 weeks [old]“Says TerriAnn. “The students raise, socialize and prepare the puppy for about two years.”
A puppy breeder is the puppy’s primary carer – keeping their service puppy at home, taking them to class, and performing most of the socialization activities. TerriAnn recalls puppy-raising Megan Warhover routinely taking her service dog, Dewey, to soccer games in Mizzou.
“Our puppy educators bring the puppies into environments where they are exposed to different situations,” says TerriAnn. “This prepares them for situations that they could experience in a more rigorous training at CHAMP or as an assistance dog.”
If puppy training is busy, a puppy sitter will look after the puppy for a few hours.
Puppy trainers and puppy sitters must attend meetings and events, meet with TerriAnn individually on a weekly basis, and be familiar with a training manual that describes the do’s and don’ts for caring for service puppies.
Training the puppy
Once a puppy has passed its first major health exam at 4 to 6 months of age, the puppy will begin training with CHAMP staff in St. Louis. (Prior to COVID-19, a partnership between CHAMP and the Department of Corrections enabled CHAMP staff to exercise the dogs with the help of select inmates at the Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. The dogs lived with the inmates around the clock. and CHAMP staff traveled to Vandalia every week to work with the dogs and inmates.)
CHAMP offers more rigorous and specific training and shows the puppies how to help people with various cognitive and physical disabilities. For example, a video on CHAMP’s Facebook page shows a trainer falling and a dog retrieving the phone so the trainer can dial 911.
“The skills taught largely depend on the dog’s size and personality and the needs of the individual,” says TerriAnn.
The puppy will stay with CHAMP staff for 6 to 8 weeks before returning to the Puppies with Purpose puppy training facilities for occasional vacations and socialization trips.
Make a game
Although most puppies are placed around the age of two, the frequent visits between CHAMP and Puppies with Purpose puppy trainers continue until the puppy is at least 15 months old. The extensive matching process of CHAMP takes place during the remaining nine months.
“CHAMP brings the dog to the person’s house so that the CHAMP trainers can navigate, observe and work with the partnership there,” says TerriAnn. “The visit can be every week initially, but the closer the dog’s placement gets, the more routine visits – like a couple of times a week.”
CHAMP’s work doesn’t stop after a match. TerriAnn says the organization routinely visits the couple to make sure they are a good fit. “CHAMP makes sure there is a happy puppy and that the person’s needs are met,” says TerriAnn.
Not every dog who begins service dog training completes the program. Often those who do not have a degree are trained to be therapy dogs. Occasionally, dogs can be adopted by a family, TerriAnn adds.
As part of their mission, Puppies with Purpose aims to create a disabled-conscious community. The group achieves this through its educational programs, among other things.
TerriAnn says understanding the difference between a service dog and an assistance dog is one aspect of creating a disabled-conscious community.
“‘Assistance dog’ is the general term that includes service dogs, emotional support dogs, facility dogs, and home therapy dogs,” says TerriAnn. “According to the law, service dogs are dogs that have been specially trained to perform certain tasks for a person with a disability.”
Another aspect of creating a disabled-conscious community is educating people about what service dogs do for their companions.
“Service dogs can pick things up off the floor, keep things balanced and stable, and open the refrigerator door, to name a few,” says TerriAnn. Zonta, TerriAnn’s training dog, helps demonstrate these skills during presentations and demonstrations.
Puppies with Purpose has given presentations and demonstrations to various groups including schools, Boy Scout and Boy Scout troops, corporations, and various campus organizations.