Service dog in training
An Uplifting Paws worker trains one of the organization's service dogs. Photo courtesy of Uplifting Paws.

There’s just something about a dog’s love. 

Michelle O’Dea’s belief in the healing power of dogs led her to found the Lincoln-based organization Domesti-PUPS in 2000, and the organization has been training service dogs to assist people with disabilities ever since. Despite the 20-plus years that Domesti-PUPS has provided training for service and therapy dogs, the past year has been among the busiest ever in terms of demand for training services.

That’s also true for Liz Higley, who started the Lincoln non-profit Uplifting Paws in 2017. In the early days of Uplifting Paws, business was quiet as interest in service dogs slowly trickled in, and it took Higley almost six months to get a team of volunteers for therapy dogs. Recently, things have been different.

“The demand definitely has increased; I get at least 10 phone calls a week and at least three or four emails a day asking about what they need to do for a service dog, or if they need a therapy dog or the way to go about it and things like that,” Higley said.

While there are similarities between therapy and service dogs, catering to specific needs of the dog owners is a key part of the training process. Service dogs are trained to assist with specific tasks that will help one specific person manage their disability in their daily life. O’Dea said that unlike most training organizations, Domesti-PUPS specializes in training service dogs for children as young as 5 years old.

“Most organizations start at 12 years old. We breed most of our own dogs for our service program, and we do dogs specifically that will work well for children that age and dogs that are intuitive,” O’Dea said.

Meanwhile, therapy dogs are owned by individual volunteers who go through a training and a certification program before the dogs can visit the likes of nursing homes and hospitals. Therapy dogs have also become a popular option in schools, thanks to their calming presence that O’Dea said reminds children of home. 

Therapy dogs can also lead to better socialization among children over a common bond, and O’Dea also said therapy dogs have successfully worked with children suffering from outbursts. That type of thinking is echoed by Higley in the work of Uplifting Paws. The non-profit has five dogs spread across Lincoln Public Schools and another trained therapy dog at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“It makes a really big difference for those kids to have a dog there. We have a dog at a high school where the teacher is a special ed teacher, and that dog has helped so many of his students open up and be able to do things that they wouldn’t normally comfort-wise,” Higley said.

Training service and therapy dogs doesn’t come without its challenges, but the rewarding nature of seeing service dogs make everyday life easier and therapy dogs assist all sorts of people continues to fuel both O’Dea and Higley.

“I call it magic because it’s not something that you can re-create or bottle, it’s just an inherent ability in that dog to reach people on a different level than we can,” O’Dea said.

“It has its ups and downs just like any other job but overall the ups definitely outweigh the downs,” Higley said. “It’s definitely a really awesome thing to see how much these dogs mean to people.”

I am a senior journalism and sports media communication major from Omaha, Nebraska.