Service Animals of Southwest Virginia


February 08, 2012|Laura Neff-Henderson, APR

As a growing number of Americans join the ranks of the disabled in this country, the number of people in need of assistance from service animals climbs as well. The number of Americans with a disability rose 7.7 percent, or by 3.4 million people, to nearly 48 million between 1999 and 2005, according to theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

St. Francis Service Dogs, based in Roanoke, expects to place about 10 professionally trained service dogs this year and is working to see that number grow to about 25 in coming years. They typically have about 15 – 20 people in the application process or on the waiting list at any given time. Saint Francis dogs assist people with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, joint and/or muscular diseases, multiple sclerosis, brain injury, paralysis, Parkinson’s, post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other disabling conditions.


The organization also has a robust community program through which dogs are partnered with working professionals in the healthcare, judicial, and educational fields. The dogs assist with therapy, provide motivation, and give comfort to children and adults in these various settings. Their Prison Pups program allows inmates at the Bland Correctional Center, a medium security men's prison, to learn how to raise and train puppies for Saint Francis.

The company was founded in 1996 when co-founder Carol Willoughby had her service dog privately trained and realized that the costs were not something many families could easily afford. Today Saint Francis Service Dogs is the largest service dog organization in Virginia and is accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

Willoughby was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 22.

“We literally started [the organization] around her kitchen table,” says Deborah Duerk, office manager. “We have now grown into a much longer organization, but the things that were important to us back then - offering really personal attention and being able to offer that at a very small cost to our partners – those things continue to be just as important.”

Applicants to the program are required to pay a nominal $25 application fee. St Francis partners are asked to pay about $200 for the equipment they receive when they officially take ownership of the dog. The equipment includes a crate, vest, leash, and collar.

It takes two years and about $25,000 to train each dog they place, but the non-profit organization doesn’t pass the expenses for that along to its partners. Residents of Virginia and those who live within a three-hour radius of the Saint Francis Service Dogs facility in Roanoke, are eligible to apply.

“We do not, have never, and will never pass that charge along to the partners,” said Duerk.

Most commonly, the dogs are trained to help their partners with an abundance of daily tasks. They are trained to assist with seemingly simple tasks that are sometimes difficult or impossible for the disabled - picking items up, opening and closing doors, retrieving the phone, and turning lights on and off. They are also trained to go for help in an emergency. For many of their partners, the dogs instill a sense of independence not otherwise possible.

A recent change to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (March 15, 2011) limits the federal definition of a service animal to a dog. Virginia law, however, is broader and allows for the inclusion of any animal trained to assist a person with a disability.

Perhaps due to the increasing demand for service dogs, people across the country are turning to less conventional animals for everyday tasks. Although rare, goats are said to help those with muscular dystrophy and parrots those with psychosis. Monkeys are being trained to help adults with quadriplegia and agoraphobia and dozens of other animals are being placed into homes and workplaces to help with anxiety, including cats, ferrets, pigs, at least one iguana, and a duck.

No matter what type of animal it is, temperament and training are instrumental when it comes to finding the right service animal.

“Being a service dog takes a very special dog,” said Marilyn Wilson, the puppy program administrator at Saint Francis. “They are exposed to so much and have to be able to handle all kinds of situations, including crowds, traveling, and [lots of] different environments.” 

The Saint Francis training program is detailed, comprehensive, and designed specifically for Saint Francis service dogs. The program is administered by a team of four on-staff professional dog trainers and several field trainers.

Most service dogs are golden retrievers and labrador retrievers; however, Saint Francis has had much success placing dogs of many different breeds. Their on-staff trainers work with the dogs from the time they are about seven weeks old when they join the program until they are at least two years old and get a partner. The training includes various levels of socialization and obedience training that involves fun activities and games. After learning the more advanced skills, they begin to learn the various tasks that their partners will come to rely on them for.

If you, or someone you know, is interested in applying for a service dog, you can find a list of facilities accredited by Assistance Dogs International, Inc. at A list of other non-traditional service animals is harder to come by though. Those placements typically come from private training situations.

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