Launched seven years ago by three close friends who are “more like sisters,” the non-profit organization God’s Canine Angels began its mission to train therapy dogs and provide them to individuals in need.
“Anyone with a disability as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA],” qualifies for a service dog through God’s Canine Angels, said co-founder Stacey Payne. Of the 15 to 30 applications for service dogs received by the organization per year, between 10 and 15 applicants qualify based on this criteria, she said.
“We are way different than anybody else,” Payne said of the organization.
God’s Canine Angels operates on a sliding scale program, Payne explained.
“We don’t charge them for the service dog. Whatever clients are able to pay, we ask for documentation like tax information, pay checks, social security information, and things like that. And then it’s determined an amount that we ask them to help us raise,” Payne said. This makes service dogs accessible to individuals who would otherwise be unable to afford one through many other agencies.
Trainers at God’s Canine Angels also recognize that dogs are as individual as humans when it comes to learning.
“There are a thousand ways to teach ‘sit.’ There are a thousand ways to teach ‘down.’ There are a thousand ways to teach ‘come.’ You’ve got to find, as an animal behaviorist, the right way for that dog to understand,” Payne said.
A crucial part of tailoring each dog’s training relies on growing the bond between a client and service dog. With God’s Canine Angels, clients do not pick their dog; the dog picks their human. Clients are heavily involved in the training process to facilitate the building of a bond with the dog that picks them.
“Just like every person is different, every situation is different. Every dog and every individual is different,” Payne said. “Each are trained differently, one from the other. It’s no set thing. It’s building the plan for that person’s individuality and the dog’s individuality.”
Payne said that 90% of service dogs in training with other programs wash out, and she believes it is largely due to the lack of bonding with the human they are meant to assist.
“The dog’s not a robot. The dog has its own feelings. We want to connect that in a positive way, and building the bond through obedience and love, and caring and nurturing,” Payne said.
Instead of breeding and raising their own dogs, like some other service dog training agencies do, God’s Canine Angels obtains their dogs from shelters in the area and accepts donated dogs from breeders.
Just as not all individuals qualify for a service dog, not all dogs qualify to become service dogs to a human, Payne explained. Some canines simply do not have the disposition necessary to make them a successful service dog, but plenty of dogs do have the disposition.
An intake team comprised of doctors and nurses determines which clients officially qualify for a service dog through God’s Canine Angels.
“[They] go over the disability and then say, ‘Will this change this person’s life? Will this allow this person to have much more freedom?’” Payne explained.
Once a client is determined as qualifying, the process moves forward with a series of interviews.
“We do a house interview. We require certain things in the household or in the life. If we’re going to place a dog with them, they have to have a fenced-in yard. They have to have the dog on a leash. The dog’s not allowed to stay outside for any length of time unless you’re out there with them,” Payne said.
God’s Canine Angels has a maximum capacity of 10 dogs at a time, Payne said. To date, the organization has over 100 working service dogs that have passed through their training successfully.
The mission is made possible by the dedicated volunteers and individuals whom the organization calls “Angel Guardians.” Angel Guardians are individuals who have trained with the organization in the past, and continue volunteering to help train service dogs who come from the shelter. The training is an enormous dedication of time, Payne said. Volunteers donate their time, talents and passion and never get paid.
“You have to be 100% committed to this. That means you’re waking, you’re sleeping, you’re working a service dog. It’s consistent; it’s constant. You need 400 public access hours. It’s training from the time you wake up to the time you fall asleep. It’s everything. You’re communicating with your dog,” Payne said.
While God’s Canine Angels focuses on training service dogs for physical disabilities, Positive Paws, the program that actually preceded God’s Canine Angels, handles some work training dogs to be emotional service animals for individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, and other psychological struggles. Positive Paws consists of humans and their dogs who visit schools, nursing homes and the library. The dogs are also in the court system and visit police departments, and have recently been growing a presence at Middle River Regional Jail. Positive Paws provides more for emotional needs.
Jane Gunter, who has been part of Positive Paws with her husband for many years, says that one of the most rewarding parts of participating in this outreach is developing friendships and seeing the joy that the dogs bring to humans.
“The appreciation, the smiles that you see from those people of how much joy those dogs really can bring,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Positive Paws keeps her dog active, as an added bonus, Gunter said.
When Positive Paws added God’s Canine Angels to its mission, the operation outgrew their Waynesboro headquarters. Payne said that they relocated to an old Amish schoolhouse in Stuarts Draft that could accommodate the growing program, where the headquarters stands today.
“All of our clients and the community came together and helped us, because they knew what our mission was and what we wanted to do, housing both Positive Paws and God’s Canine Angels underneath one building,” Payne said. “With the help of our community, we got the fencing donated to us, we got the flooring donated, we got a lot of the construction or re-construction donated to us.”
Although the support is immense, Payne said that God’s Canine Angels still faces some resistance and apprehension from portions of their new community since moving locations. Still, she believes that the move to the three-acre lot will be for the best, and Payne hopes to keep engaging with the community in positive ways as everyone adjusts.
As a non-profit organization, God’s Canine Angels relies on the support of volunteers and financial donations to fund their work. The organization has a current need for more Angel Guardians, and financial donations are always welcome.
“I’m not going to let this die. I don’t care if I can just do one service dog a year; I’m going to keep going,” Payne said.
The organization is tremendously grateful for the support they have already received, and looks forward to continuing its mission of changing lives for the better.