"4 Paws GSD Rescue"
The 4 Paws For Ability TM Story By: Karen Shirk, Founder
In 1987 I was a young person going to School to become a Social Worker and taking life lightly. In addition
to my Full Class Schedule, I worked full time in the Field of Mental Retardation. Like most College Students, I existed on
little sleep and was always tired. Looking back on that time, it is easy for me to see the progression of the Disease, but
at the time I shrugged off the Symptoms blaming them on my Full Schedule. All of that changed when difficulty breathing became
Respiratory Arrest. From that day forward I began a Life Journey far different than the one I envisioned in those early years.
The Disease hit hard and fast. It quickly robbed me of any meaningful life. Long Hospital Stays wore heavy on my Relationships
with others and all but my closest friends disappeared from my life.
In 1994 I had been dealing with what was Diagnosed as Myasthenia Gravis, a Rare Neuromuscular Disease for
almost Seven Years. Treatment had not been effective, and the Disease had hit again, this time robbing me of the will to live.
A friend of mine had tried to find an Agency to place a Service Dog with me, but Agency after Agency turned us away. It seemed
that these Agencies with their long waiting lists, had developed guidelines which often excluded those they deemed too Disabled
or not Disabled enough. I spent much of my life at that time Respirator dependent. The answers from the Agencies were always
the same, there were others who had more ability than I, others they felt their Dogs would assist in reintegration into the
Community. One Agency accepted my application and placed me on their waiting list. Eighteen Months later they called to tell
me they had a Match, and they sent a Woman out to see what Tasks the Dog would need to learn. Two Weeks later I received a
letter in the Mail, "We are sorry," it said, "our Agency guidelines prohibit the placement of Service Dogs with people who
use Ventilators. Prior to the Meeting I had allowed myself to feel a little hope. It was exciting to think of a Dog that could
at the very least allow me some time alone, the Dog being able to accomplish many of the Tasks my Personal Care Assistants
did. When that letter came, I gave up all hope. I had often thought of ending my life. In fact, I had saved enough Morphine
to accomplish the Task easily. When I looked at my life all I could see was Death, a long slow Death, with each day robbing
me of some little pieces of ability I had held the day before.
When I look at those times I now refer to as the days of Death," it saddens me that I lost such a large
chunk of my life. I also see how lucky I was I had a close friend who refused to watch me die. She drug me from place to place
looking at Puppies, trying desperately to get me to once more cling to life and to find again the courage to fight for that
life. I had no desire to get a Puppy. In my opinion I couldn't care for myself, how then could I Train a Pupy? I am not sure
what happened that wonderful day that my Service Dog entered my life, but he looked at me from the Back of his Pen and the
magic began. I took that 30 Pound, Black Bundle of Fur home and gave him the Name Ben, My Courage and Friend." Today, he IS
his Name and so much more.
Today I am Thirty-Nine Years old and Ben is almost Eight. When I think about how close I came to Death,
I celebrate every minute I now live. I still have Myasthenia Gravis. It has robbed me of many Physical Abilities but in many
ways, it has actually strenghened my life. Without it, I would not have Ben, and I would not be where I am. I regained my
zest for life and now live the most rewarding life I could ever dream of.
I did not jump right back into life. With Ben supporting me I inched closer and closer to life each day.
As Ben grew, I faced new challenges. I learned quickly that very few Agencies are willing to Train an Owned Dog. Ben and I
had been attending Classes at a Local Dog Training School and he was quickly approaching a need for Advanced Service Dog Training.
However, the Club was helpful, some of the Volunteers worked with me, teaching me how to Train the retrieval Work. I applied
to a Dog Training School in Colombus, Ohio and they were willing to help. One of the Student Trainers worked with Ben, and
taught me to Train him at home, and Train we did! In 1996, I returned to work, with Ben right at my side!
With every day that passed I gained more confidence in living with this Disease. I know there is no Cure
and I know my days are numbered, but with Ben I am living each and every day and not missing a Second! As I grew Spiritually
strong and looked back on the days since that first Respiratory Arrest, I found certain sadness there. Each night as I watched
Ben sleeping at my feet I wondered how many others there were who needed the same Miracles that Ben offered me. I wondered
how many others were turned away because they didn't fit the Service Dog Agencies criteria. I can clearly remember the day
I envisioned 4 Paws For Ability TM, Inc., and began the initial planning. It was Fall, and Ben and I were sitting out in the
Back Field watching the leaves that fell from the Trees. As I watched him play, I began to dream of an Agency where anyone
with a Disability could apply and not be turned away. I thought of the long waiting lists many Agencies had and knew there
were People with Disabilities who would rather work with someone to raise the money for Training than sitting on a 3 Year
List waiting for a Free Dog, and I knew there were people who could Train their own Dogs, with just a little help. 4 Paws
For Ability TM, Inc. was created with Ben at my side. He was there when I got the Incorporation Papers in the Mail. He was
there at the first Board Meeting, when I looked at those 12 People who would help make my dream a reality. He was at my side
when I went to Children's Hospital to tell a 12 Year old Child, wo had a Spinal Stroke that left her paralyzed, that she would
not be turned away because she was a Child.
Ben has been by my side for almost Eight Years. 4 Paws is growing daily. We have watched 46 Dogs become
Service Dogs. We have placed many Dogs with Children. One Child with Autism is now safe from the dangers he might face when
he wanders because Patches can track him within minutes. A Woman in New York, traveled to 4 Paws, here in Ohio, to get a Dog
for Emotional Support. Ben was there when I read the letter, which said she had made her first trip to the Store alone, and
had no Panic Attack, but then she wasn't really alone, Pepper was at her side. Katie, a 10 Year old with Seizures, slept in
her own bed, in her room for the first time with Roxie beside her keeping watch. Roxie will bark if Katie has a Seizure so
Mom and Dad can come to help. Ben and I have watched each Dog Graduate and look forward to each Dog that will go forth and
bring with him or her, the magic Ben brought to me.
Ben has been a shining example as a Mobility Assistance Dog. With each new ability I have lost to MG, Ben
has learned a new skill to do it for me. Last year he learned to open the Refrigerator and bring me a bottle of water. I credit
Ben for saving my life twice. The First was when he came to my life as a Puppy and brought with him the magic, which gave
me the will to fight again. The Second was after Open-Heart Surgery when I returned home on a Morphine Pump and a deadly combination
of Medications left me barely conscious and fighting for life. When the Phone rang, Ben was Trained to retrieve it on command
picked it up and lay it beside me. He then began to bark. It was my Dad who called and he knew right away that something was
wrong. If Ben had waited for a command from me the answering machine would have come on and most likely, my Nurse would have
arrived the next morning to find me dead.
After almost Eight Years, I am still learning from Ben. He was Diagnosed this year with Degenerative Mylopathy,
a Neurological Condition that causes progressive Paralysis in the Back Legs. There is no real Treatment and no Cure. We spent
a horrid week at Ohio State University only to walk away with the words, "There is nothing we can do. Retire him." Holding
to the hope that it would slow the progression, I followed their advice and retired him. When he walks he drags his feet and
the toenails are ripped open, I saw no alternative. Ben stepped up to the Plate. He had walked beside me as I fought my Disease
and the lesson's he had taught were not to end there. At the end of each day, I would return home to horrors. He opened Drawers
and ate bags of Dog Treats, he opened the Refrigerator and helped himself, and when I secured these, he opened my Cloths Drawers
and pulled all the Cloths out, leaving them all over the house. The message was clear, he had helped me overcome Disability,
even in the presence of Death, and he was to have nothing less for himself. I was humbled. There were no days of depression,
no thought of loss, at least not that I have seen. He gets up each and every day ready to go. I watch him climb slowly into
my Van, sometimes at great effort and have been humbled by the experience. How much there is to learn from our Dogs, in Ben
there is no understanding of ability or lack there of. There is just today, the moment, and he will live every second, just
as I have. He has been there beside me every day and now I walk beside him. We are here to defy Disability and expose the
Myth that it exists. We count our combined abilities at the beginning of each day and make the most of life.
Many People have Honored Ben. There have been Stories Written and Printed in Newspapers and Magazines across
the United States. This Year he is Featured in the Dog Fancy Magazine's Popular Dog Series on German Shepherds. With Ben by
my side, my life is complete. I wouldn't have it any other way. That's why we spend countless hours every week, watching our
Agency grow and feeling more and more fulfilled with each new Service Dog that makes that final trip out our door to walk
beside someone else and assist them in bringing their Dreams to reality as Ben and I have. In May 2002, Channel 9, WCPO, Honored
4 Paws For Ability TM with their Hometown Hero's Award, giving each and every 4 Paws Graduate the Title of HERO, for this IS
exactly what they are. Every 4 Paws Dog is a Hero to at least one person, their recipient and partner in life!
In April of 2002, I took Ben on a week vacation to experience his Final Moments of life with joy. We ran
a Booth at a Local Dog Event, and Ben welcomed each Visitor as they arrived at our Booth as he had done 100s of times before.
He licked each Child and shook hands with anyone who stopped to meet him. He even ran to fetch a Frisbee with some Boys. His
Gait was off, he dragged and fell to the ground several times but he returned Frisbee in his mouth and the twinkle of joy
in his eyes that was the Trademark of his life. We visited his best friend Judy at her farm and he howled all the way down
the driveway. He seemed to know he was there to say good-by. We visited the Preschool and the Children with Autism he loved
so dearly and he smiled as he watched them reach to touch his Fur. With a Final Walk through the 40 Acres of Woods which had
been his Kingdom for most of his life I helped Ben return to a Place where all Dogs run and play, where there are Bones growing
on Trees, and Treats fall from the Sky. Ben lives on in the Hearts of everyone who met him yet none so strongly as mine. While
other Dogs have come to walk beside me, none will ever quite be able to walk in his Pawprints and none will ever fill the
gap in my Heart waiting to be filled once more when I join him at the "Rainbow Bridge." My thanks to everyone who has loved
Ben as I have, Honored him with Awards, and Wrote countless Stories about his life in Newspapers, Magazines, and on TV across
the Country. With each repeat of "Miracle Pets" on Animal Planet and the Emails that come in as a result, and with each new
Team that walks out our doors; I am reminded that the Spirit of Ben is alive and well in the World today!
In April 2002, at the age of 8 Years, Ben left for the "Rainbow Bridge." Before his Death, he was given
Two of the Highest Honors a German Shepherd can obtain. He walked in the GSDCA's National Specialty Show "Parade of Great
Dogs" and received the 2001 GSDCA Hero Dog Award! His Memory is Honored with each and every Dog that leaves 4 Paws.