Service Dogs Alabama has created a specialized approach to healing. By fostering an advanced language and understanding between dog and human, the organization is changing lives
and making miracles happen for those they serve.
Frances McGowin, the Executive Director of Service Dogs Alabama (SDA), knew the therapeutic value of animals long before she co-founded SDA. Nearly a decade ago, she began bringing her certified therapy dogs into sessions with children with disabilities at Baptist East Rehabilitation. “After only a few months, I started getting inquiries from families who had seen such amazing results that they wanted a trained dog for their child,” said McGowin.
From the flood of requests rose a service dog program—K-9s 4 Kids. Created by McGowin and her fellow dog trainer, Ashley Taylor, the organization quickly expanded its mission and changed its name to Service -Dogs Alabama. Today, SDA-trained service dogs serve children, adults and veterans with disabilities as well as schools, courtrooms and first-responder headquarters.
SDA’s dogs can serve both medical and psychiatric needs, providing services that range from offering stability and balance control and seizure alerts to waking someone suffering with PTSD from a nightmare and intercepting anxiety and meltdowns in those with autism.
SDA currently has 50 dogs in training: Labrador retrievers, labradoodles, golden retrievers and occasionally a Labrador/spaniel cross. SDA works to identify each dog’s individual strengths to train them for their ideal placement.
The benefits of the dogs’ training extend beyond the people they’ll eventually help. In addition to the six trainers McGowin and Taylor have on staff, they utilize 10 trained socializers and 54 trainers who are inmates at a women’s prison. The dogs spend eight to 10 months during their two-year training program inside the prison. Some of the inmates have been training with SDA since the organization’s inception nine years ago. They have become a highly skilled group of trainers who dedicate their days and nights to the care and training of these dogs. “Time can stand still for an incarcerated inmate,” explained McGowin. “The service dog training program stops the prisoner’s stagnation and gives them the foundation to form healthy new life skills and habits while serving a profound purpose.”
Over the years, McGowin and her team have found that the recidivism rates among the inmates they work with are very low. One inmate trainer said, “It helps me wake up every morning with a purpose. A positive purpose. A meaningful purpose.”
The final step of training, called finishing, occurs in the free world with SDA’s professional trainers. “Our goal is to create a language [for the dogs], both spoken and unspoken. It is bond that creates a lifeline for real change,” McGowin explained.
Support for SDA’s Mission
SDA’s average cost for a service dog is approximately $30,000 over a two-year training period, and the staff works tirelessly to raise funds needed. “All of our donors, board members and volunteers deserve our sincerest thanks. They are the reason we are a thriving service dog organization,” said McGowin.
Among those supporters is Montgomery veterinarian Dr. Cade Armstrong, owner of Montgomery Veterinary Associates, who has provided medical care for all SDA dogs since its founding in 2010. In addition, a host of individuals, companies and non-profit groups contribute to the group’s mission, including Alabama Power Foundation. “The medical and psychiatric assistance provided by dogs to children, adults and veterans with disabilities truly meets a need within our community,” said Leslie Sanders, Vice President of the Southern Division of Alabama Power. “It is amazing to see the profound confidence that these dogs help instill in adults and children, and we are proud to support this mission.”
SDA’s Newest Frontier
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is quickly approaching epidemic proportions. Service Dogs Alabama has developed specialized training for Military Transitional Assistance (MTA) dogs who will be placed with military or first-responder families to assist all members of the family. This specialized training helps the dog prevent escalation of PTSD symptoms when needed.
In addition, the service dog industry and its health and safety regulations are changing. “It is more important than ever that the people who receive service dogs are properly trained. It is also mandatory that service dog providers be accountable for the dogs that they train and place,” said McGowin.
To comply with governing Service Dog organizations, SDA is building small, free-standing PODS, which will house recipients on property free of charge for their transition time, annual training and camps.
With the organization’s 10th anniversary approaching, McGowin says she looks forward to the transformative power of the work that is to come. “Providing specialty-trained service and facility dogs to perform life-changing tasks for the people that they serve — there is nothing more rewarding,” she said.
Montgomery Company Makes Saving Lives Focus of Anniversary
The Montgomery area is in critical need of blood donations, and one local business has committed to using its anniversary to help. Turenne PharMedCo, a long-term care pharmacy and medical supply distributor, held a blood drive on July 10 to celebrate 27 years in business and aimed to donate at least 27 units of blood.
According to the American Red Cross, about 36,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the United States. That’s why Turenne opened up the drive to all of the surrounding companies located in the Montgomery Industrial Park. “Currently, there’s only a one-day supply of certain blood types available in our area,” said Lauren Wright, Director of Human Resources. “We wanted to use this time of celebration for Turenne to give back and save lives in our community.”
Turenne partnered with LifeSouth Community Blood Centers to collect the donations.
Montgomery Zoo Honors Military
The Chamber, The Montgomery Zoo, the City of Montgomery, the Montgomery County Commission and presenting sponsor, Guardian Credit Union, invited all active duty, retired and veteran military personnel, their spouses and dependent children to visit the zoo for free on Military Appreciation Day. Each military guest also received one free train ride ticket with their admission, and the honored guests were treated to a picnic lunch provided by sponsors. Representatives from local military installations, the Chamber and the City of Montgomery addressed and thanked those in attendance.
AL State Bar Kicks Off Pro Bono Month
The Alabama State Bar’s annual celebration of Pro Bono Month, which officially kicked off on October 1, is a statewide effort to showcase the impact Alabama’s pro bono lawyers make on the state, its system of justice, and most of all, to the clients they service. “This celebration shines a spotlight on the extensive work Alabama lawyers are doing by donating their time to help those who need it most,” said Alabama State Bar President Christy Crow. “It’s also an important vehicle to encourage more pro bono volunteers to meet the ever-growing legal needs of our state’s most vulnerable citizens.” Crow’s uniting initiative as president has been Better Together, and Alabama lawyers are making their communities better together by providing thousands of hours of pro bono legal services to those in need.
In fact, Alabama leads the nation in its pro bono work. In addition, Alabama has one of the highest lawyer enrollment rates in pro bono programs in the country. The Alabama State Bar administers a Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP) in 60 of Alabama’s 67 counties. The VLP has delivered free legal services to low-income residents of Alabama for more than 25 years, providing a variety of civil legal issues such as divorce, child support, bankruptcy, landlord/tenant, veterans’ affairs and credit issues.
Faulkner’s Warm “Back to School” Welcome
The Faulkner University’s Marching Eagles drumline set the beat as more than 300 student athletes, coaches, faculty and staff lined the sidewalk and hallways of Montgomery Public School’s Davis Elementary to welcome students on their first day of school. It’s a reception that’s met each year with smiles, high-fives, fist-bumps and lots of cheering. “To look at the faces of the parents, they are so excited when we come,” said Dr. Jean-Noel Thompson, Vice President of Student Services at Faulkner.
This year marked the fourth time that Faulkner students, coaches, faculty, staff and leadership have come out to give a warm surprise welcome to the students, parents and teachers of Davis. This year, Faulkner was joined by several members of the community, including Montgomery Fire/Rescue, Leadership Montgomery, local churches and members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
“We are so appreciative of the Faulkner Family joining us for the first day of the school year,” said Tori Infinger, principal of Davis Elementary. “Davis Elementary would like to thank Faulkner for their support in setting the stage for success this school year.”
Warren Averett & Montgomery Biscuits Support Food Bank & Military Warren Averett again partnered with the Montgomery Biscuits for the 2019 season in support of the Montgomery Area Food Bank. During every Tuesday night Montgomery Biscuits home game, the Food Bank set up a table at the gate to raise awareness of the organization and to collect donations. Spectators received a free hot dog with any monetary or canned food donation. “We hope this partnership benefits the Food Bank by not only increasing donations but also awareness,” said Lee Parks, a member in Warren Averett’s Montgomery Audit Division. “Warren Averett is committed to supporting nonprofit organizations that play an integral role in a strong community,”
County Commissioner Helps Revitalize Dalraida
Montgomery County Commission Vice Chairman Ronda Walker continued to show her dedication to District 3. She recently announced the donation of $75,000 to help with the revitalization efforts underway in Dalraida. The money will go toward creating a new park and a road. Recently, the City of Montgomery razed the old Screws Armory located on Atlanta Highway in Dalraida. With that now empty area, plans are to create a green space for families to enjoy. A road will also be created in the vicinity to allow traffic to enter the East Montgomery ball fields from Atlanta Highway. Currently, the only point of entrance is on Perry Hill Road, which causes congestion and an unsafe environment for those entering and exiting the ballpark. “There is great growth in the Dalraida community with new shopping and dining options. This project, which we are extremely proud of, will enhance what is already happening in the area,” said Commissioner Walker.