Service Dogs, Inc. trains shelter dogs and gives them renewed purpose
Everyone wins here: shelter dogs find good homes, people with disabilities are able to live more independently, animal trainers get jobs they love, and the Dripping Springs community receives an economic and social boost.
Service Dogs, Inc. rescues “dogs that other people have thrown away,” as founder and president Sheri Soltes puts it. Her team of professional animal trainers prepares the rescued dogs for new lives as best friends and helpers to people living with hearing or mobility challenges. The team supplies one-on-one training to the human partners to help them form a lifelong bond with “technology they can hug.”
It began with stomachaches—nightly ones Sheri had in 1988 as a young trial lawyer in Houston. Her job was to try the stale cases her law firm gladly handed over to the graduate fresh out of the University of Texas School of Law. The stomach pains told Sheri she needed to find a better path for her life. She came across a magazine article about dogs that help people with disabilities and was hooked.
“Everyone was using breeding programs, but the article mentioned that occasionally a group would use a shelter dog. I’ve always wanted to rescue every animal possible—so that appealed to me,” she explains. “I wrote all the associations listed in the article asking for help—the kind of letter I get all the time now—and some of them replied with helpful information about conferences, training, etc.”
Sheri wasn’t an animal trainer at that time, but she thought, “There should really be a business side, doing the fundraising, and then there should be the training side. It’s hard to do both.” So the young woman who had once ignored her papa’s best-intentioned advice on how to balance a checkbook took on the role of fundraiser and organizer for her fledgling nonprofit.
That moment, Sheri says, is when her background as a trial lawyer kicked in. “As a trial lawyer, you don’t have to really know anything—you just have to find somebody else who knows about whatever area you need help in,” she says. “Basically, you’re introducing expert witnesses to a jury. You just have to organize them.”
She used the same methodology to create the new nonprofit, enlisting the help of friends and former law school colleagues as advisors and consultants.
In 2004, Service Dogs, Inc. moved its training operation from homes in Houston, Dayton, and Dallas to acreage in Dripping Springs. Over the next twelve years, the organization built a campus to house a growing number of programs and services. The team frequently makes these facilities available to groups in the community to use for meetings and events.
Service Dogs, Inc. adopts dogs from shelters all over Texas. “Most training organizations breed their animals—we’re one of the few that use shelter dogs,” Sheri says.
Choosing dogs is based on a bit of intuition, tempered with a lot of experience, Sheri explains. Today a trainer comes back from the La Grange shelter, thrilled with a yellow lab she found there. “He was a very easy ‘yes,’” she grins.
Trainers use an extensive temperament test to assess dogs at a shelter. They look for young adult dogs (18 months to two years old) that display traits they hope to further develop: paying attention to sounds, picking up toys, and, above all, displaying interest in people and ease with other animals. Service Dogs, Inc. tends to end up with a lot of labs and black dogs, Sheri says, because there are so many in shelters, but they don’t select by breed. They’re more interested in particular aptitudes displayed by the dog—regardless of whether it’s purebred or a mixed breed.
Service Dogs, Inc. adopts about 30 dogs a year, but only half make it through the training. The remaining dogs are adopted out as pets or go on to other jobs, perhaps serving as courthouse dogs or therapy dogs. “We never return a dog to a shelter, and we don’t look at it like they failed the program,” Sheri says. “It’s more like it just wasn’t their dream job.”
At Service Dogs, Inc. trainers use only positive reinforcement training—never dominance or punishment—because the foundation of their training is the relationship they have with the animal. Punishment erodes that bond, Sheri claims. Positive reinforcement training was relatively new on the scene when she started Service Dogs, Inc., and not many trainers had experience with it.
“It can be hard to retrain trainers—so having no skills at all was an asset,” she quips.
Her skills as a lawyer, however, make her an effective spokesperson for disability accessibility laws. Just as in animal training, Sheri finds it better to promote good behavior than punish bad behavior. Service Dogs, Inc.’s newest fundraiser, The Amazing Accessibility Awards, celebrates businesses all over Texas that make the best efforts to accommodate customers who use service dogs. This past year, the awards luncheon at the Austin Omni Hotel raised almost $20,000 for the training programs while raising awareness about accessibility in a positive way.
Sheri regularly talks to business associations such as restaurants and hotels to help people understand laws admitting service dogs to their establishments. She finds talking in front of groups much easier than trying court cases. “No one jumps up and objects to what I say,” she says with a grin.
The Mighty Texas Dog Walk
It costs about $45,000 to fully train one service dog. Because the team knows clients are already dealing with other life issues, Service Dogs, Inc. doesn’t ask clients to raise the money for their companion animal. “After they pay the initial $50 application fee, we cover all the training expenses involved,” Sheri says.
Their biggest fundraising event of the year, The Mighty Texas Dog Walk, attracts thousands of participants to downtown Austin each March. Dogs and their owners don costumes to match the year’s theme, and teams compete for trophies. Last March, the event attracted thousands of people and their pets and raised $125,000 for Service Dogs, Inc.
Over the years, The Mighty Texas Dog Walk has won several Guinness Book of World Records entries, for example for Most Dogs Walked and The Largest Furball. For the latter, Sheri commissioned a giant Lucite ball, the “Fur-o-Sphere,” and encouraged dog owners and dog groomers to bring fur they had brushed from their dogs to fill it. In 2015 they stuffed it with 310 pounds of fur. “It’s slightly disgusting—and a whole lot of fun!” Sheri says.
Working like a Dog
Service Dogs, Inc. plans more programs to further their vision of humans-helping-dogs-to-help-humans. The possibilities seem endless. “Everybody who touches this organization gets a benefit,” says Sheri, who, incidentally, no longer suffers from stomachaches.
Service Dogs, Inc. needs volunteers to help at events statewide and at the facility in Dripping Springs and to foster dogs-in-training overnight and on weekends. For more information, visit www.servicedogs.org or call 512-858-1495.