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By Laura Drinan
Hometown Weekly Reporter
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Pauline Hoegler, the founder of Golden Opportunities for Independence (GOFI) service dog program, undoubtedly is a dog person.
For over 20 years, Hoegler has been breeding golden retrievers to compete, training her dogs in agility and obedience. However, after breeding show dogs for years, and after one of her dogs became a therapy dog, she realized her golden retrievers possess many of the qualities that service dogs require.
After her paraplegic niece broke her leg, Hoegler, a nurse by training, spent some time with her while she recuperated.
“We just hung out a lot and both just talked a lot about how we love helping people and that dogs are so helpful for people,” Hoegler said. “So, we both said, ‘You know what? We should really try doing a service dog program.’”
The very next day, a woman Hoegler hadn’t seen in 20 years reached out to her unexpectedly to say that she was interested in starting a service dog program. It seemed as if it were meant to be.
“Every step of the way with his whole program, it’s just like things seem to get dropped right in front of me, and I can’t say ‘no.’ That’s what keeps me going and keeps me motivated: seeing the people, the happy tears, the sad tears,” said Hoegler. “It’s really amazing stuff.”
The dogs are trained from birth to be able to help those with mobility issues do things like retrieve keys, open doors, get the phone, and pick up dropped items. It may not seem like picking up something from the ground would be life-threatening, but paraplegics run a high risk of falling out of their chairs and breaking bones.
Hoegler’s service dogs also have been able to help local individuals with epilepsy, PTSD, muscular dystrophy, Rett syndrome, and severe anxiety and depression.
She also does scent training with her dogs, which is crucial for dogs that become diabetic alert dogs and seizure alert dogs.
“There are these little traits that definitely are genetic and passed down, so you really need to have solid dogs to start with in order to get them to be sound, stable, and able to perform this kind of work,” she said. “My dogs just tend to take to it. They’re very friendly, but they’re very in tune to their handler.”
From birth, the puppies are paired with someone in need so they can immediately establish a bond and relationship. Although the dogs are born with amazing temperaments, they still, of course, need training.
So, a professional trainer works with the dogs during the day, and the puppies go home tired and trained each night. Hoegler also uses force-free and fear-free training, and she uses positive reinforcement to train the dogs.
She also works with members of the community and their families’ canines by hosting dog-training classes. The proceeds from the courses, which include classes for dogs under a year old and for prospective service dogs, go to GOFI.
This summer, Hoegler also might host a “work out with your dog” class.
Volunteers are always welcomed to apply at www.gofidog.org to help raise puppies, fundraise, go on therapy dog visits, and do anything else that will help GOFI’s mission to empower people with disabilities.