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Mission Pawsible

How a service dog named Ben helped a woman help others

Karen Shirk and her service dog, Piper, who is a Papillon. Photo by Jessica Noll

Karen Shirk stroked the ears of the sleek black German shepherd sleeping at her feet. After years of being refused, she finally had her service dog whom she named Ben.

As a young college student, Karen had been diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis (MG), a rare and debilitating neuromuscular disease. She endured long hospital stays and had to use a ventilator to breathe.

The only thing that kept her going was the thought of a service dog to help her gain some independence. But she was repeatedly told that dogs could not be paired with someone on a ventilator.

After failing to find an agency that could help her, Karen took matters into her own hands. She bought Ben and enrolled in training classes. Ben learned to perform many of the tasks previously performed by personal care assistants, such as picking up objects and opening doors.

Sharing her life with Ben made her wonder: “How many others are turned away because they don’t fit the service dog agencies’ criteria? How many others need the same miracles that Ben offers me?”

That’s when she decided she would do something to improve the quality of life for others with severe handicaps by providing them with service dogs.

Based on her and Ben’s success, Karen started her own agency, 4 Paws for Ability, in 1998, which provides service dogs to any child with a disability who wishes to have a dog.

Most agencies turn down children, feeling that children can’t handle service dogs alone. “Which is true. They can’t,” Karen says. “But we work with kids by having the parents handle the dog, at the same time getting the dog bonded to the child, not the handler.”

4 Paws for Ability trains dogs to help children with autism, Down’s syndrome, diabetes, seizures, cancer, hearing impairment, loss of mobility, mental health impairments, and many other conditions.

One of Karen’s most rewarding experiences was with a 5-year old boy named Connor. He had severe medical issues and was on a ventilator, as she had been. Through the love and assistance of his service dog, Casey, he grew stronger, gained independence and could finally go outside and play.

4 Paws for Ability raises and trains their own dogs, generally working with breeds such as golden retrievers, collies, German shepherds, labradoodles and papillons. In 2000 Karen expanded her enterprise by establishing Mission Pawsible, a program to teach prison inmates to help socialize and train puppies.

“It’s so cool to see how much difference the dogs make for the inmates,” she says, “Even though these men and women are locked away from society, they can do something good.”

Karen recalls a middle-aged inmate who had been involved in a murder when he was 18. He told her that the dog helped ease his stress and build his confidence and self-esteem.

When troubles are at their peak, God can do wonderful things. Karen found a way to help not only herself, but also hundreds of others—all thanks to a nudge from a devoted German shepherd and the countless other service dogs who make her mission pawsible.

Read Donnie Kanter Winokur’s inspiring story of how 4 Paws for Ability impacted her family.

For more info on 4 Paws for Ability, visit their website.

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