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.
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.