Four-legged friends trained in Wilmington to make lives better for people in need

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WILMINGTON — On Wednesday afternoon, several furry friends stopped by Bitty and Beau’s Coffee on New Centre Drive in Wilmington.

Forest, Walker, Jeter, Belchik and their fellow trainees were at the coffee shop serving as ambassadors for “paws4people,” a Wilmington-based non-profit that trains service assistance dogs. After about two years of training, the dogs – mostly golden retrievers and labrador retrievers – will be placed with clients.

“Our dogs all go to children or veterans with disabilities,” said Kyria Henry, the group’s executive director, who founded paws4people foundation in 1999. “The dogs serve as a psychiatric medical alert for veterans with post traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. They also provide medical assistance and can help with balance, opening doors, picking things up, things like that.

“And we also place dogs to help children with autism to help them with tactile and sensory integration,’ she said.

Most of the dogs are bred specifically by paws4people to ensure the personality traits needed for service work are present; they are in the group’s care “from birth to the client,” according to Henry.

Some of the dogs are trained by students that are part of the University of North Carolina – Wilmington’s Assistance Dog Training Program. Students complete four courses to get a certificate and then are eligible to receive a paws4people foundation facility dog to train until they are placed with a client.

Though most service dogs are trained to not interact with other people while they are working, paws4people takes their dogs out to socialize at events like the one at Bitty and Beau’s on Wednesday. Patrons were allowed to pet the dogs and get up close and personal with them.

“We hold these events in the community to raise awareness for what paws4people does,” Henry said. “Some people see service dogs are just working dogs, but they do so much more. They help in so much more than just practical ways. There’s also a social aspect to what they do, and we want people to see that.”