Fresh Pets, Fresh Skills

Dog Washes Teach Intellectually Disabled How To Care For Animals

By: Suzanne Garofalo
Originally Published: Houston Chronicle 3/29/19

This was clearly not Mocha’s first visit to the groomer. Nothing about the water, lather, blow-dryer or brush fazed the fuzzy little dog. She seemed to know she was in capable, loving hands.

Photo Credit: Dave Rossman

Those hands belong to individuals working with PawsAbilities, a nonprofit that trains children and young adults with cognitive disabilities in pet safety and animal care. Founded a year and a half ago by Adriana Herrera, the organization gives animal lovers with special needs, including her 19-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, Cecilia Herrera, a sense of responsibility and the tools for a viable career path.

Watching “Ceci” at home with their three dogs and cat, Herrera had thought, “Why can’t she someday have this opportunity?”

PawsAbilities’ most visible outreach is its charity dog washes, where Mocha and other pets (solely dogs for now) get a “neck to tail” bath from the group, which invites volunteers with special needs. The dogs leave clean, and the groomers gain experience while having a good time.

“I like the washing because they’re wet,” Cecilia said with a smile.

On a recent Sunday, The Dog House Pet Salon on Washington hosted the third of four dog washes held so far; the Flying M Feed Co. on FM 529 has provided space for the others. For this event, PawsAbilities partnered with Success on the Spectrum, a therapy provider that offers parent workshops and social events for children with autism (this writer’s son and dog took part).

“This is so the public can get to know our kids and vice versa. They’re learning how to be part of the community,” SOS behavior analyst Trudy Georgio said. “And it lets them do things their families didn’t know they were able to do.”

If their families don’t know, employers probably won’t either.

“The desire to work with animals is high among people with disabilities,” but doggie day cares, vet clinics and the like tend to see only liability issues in hiring them, said Robin Rettie. The PawsAbilities board member, who holds a master’s degree in special education and has worked in public and private school settings, worked with disability-transition program Project Discovery on the training curriculum Herrera is implementing.

“It begins with looking at career needs — how you need to behave to get employed, how to follow directions from the boss, what are called ‘soft skills,’” Rettie said.

Direct work with pets is phased in slowly — “make sure the animal feels comfortable, don’t get in their face,” Herrera said. PawsAbilities plans to hire a teacher in the coming months, she added.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Garofalo

PawsAbilities aims to grant certification in pet safety and care so that participants might still be considered for a job even without prior experience, Herrera and Rettie said. To that end, the group also offers workshops in animal CPR, dog-treat cooking classes and more.

Herrera’s dream is to open a dog-friendly cafe, adjacent to a dog park, where people with disabilities would be hired to make smoothies and coffee, and bake dog treats for sale. PawsAbilities also is in discussion with the Brookwood Community, a residential and entrepreneurial facility for the disabled in Brookshire, for a brick-and-mortar space, Herrera said.

For now, the dog washes are about smiles. “It’s a fun, soapy day with dogs,” SOS behavior technician Saedi McLaughlin said.

They’re also about empowerment. “They can do lots of things if given an opportunity and respect,” PawsAbilities board member Mark Dunkel said while manning the information and check-in table at The Dog House.

“Instead of always being the one needing help, here’s this other being who needs help,” Herrera said of the pet in these groomers’ care. “The dog is nonverbal, too. But you don’t need voices to show love and compassion.”

“A Special World” shares programs and experiences by and for the disabled community in Greater Houston.

Charity Dog Washes
PawsAbilities suggests a $15 donation for a wash, dry and brushing. Groomers younger than 11 should be accompanied by a parent.
Information: 713-425-0799 or pawsabilitiestexas.org

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