Four Legged Heroes


By Piper Davis

“We have a lot to learn from dogs.” Keegan Birkicht, Program Coordinator at Retrieving Freedom in Waverly, IA, has seen first hand the impact our four legged friends can have on someone’s life, but how do the service dogs get to where they are?

There are 70 dogs currently in training for Retrieving Freedom, but only fewer than 20 are at the facility. The rest are placed with full-time fosters who take the time to train and socialize the dogs. As of this interview, Retrieving Freedom had just placed their 97th dog. Many are not full service dogs, but still perform tasks in-home. Roughly 60 of the 97 are service dogs.

(Left)This map pinpoints exactly where various service dogs have gone to help those in need. (Right) A few of the dogs at the facility enjoy some yard time to run and play with each other.

Not every dog that completes training will become a service dog. Some “fail” for health reasons, others are too social to stay focused as long as they need to. Retrieving Freedom has a philosophy when it comes to scenarios such as this. “We try to take their weakness in our program and make it their strength somewhere else.” Keegan goes on to mention how if a dog is overly social then they will be a better therapy dog. Other ‘failures’ have become hunting dogs or even great family pets.

There are many full and part-time fosters that are the foundation of what Retrieving Freedom can accomplish. Some are in Waverly as a part of the partnership with Wartburg College, some are with regular families, and some like Addie Brenny, Makenzie Folsom, and Molly Ruhnke, are students at the University of Northern Iowa. 

Addie (top left) and Raymond pose on top of Maucker Union at the University of Northern Iowa. Makenzie (bottom left) gives Chase a kiss while playing on Lawther field. Molly (top right) shows off Susie’s personality while posing for a picture.

Addie was just wrapping up her time with Raymond, a 15-week-old black lab, who was transitioned to Ames, IA on September 24th of this year. Raymond was her first full-time foster experience.  Prior to this she only had been a part-time weekend foster for Halo, who was at that time a one-year-old black lab. 

There is a lot of stress that comes with fostering a puppy; especially one training to be a service dog. Many people assume Addie simply bought a vest off Amazon and put it on her own puppy. Addie says she often gets the familiar “why do you need a service dog?” look when she is out and about with Raymond. 

Raymond proudly shows off his skills walking next to Addie.
Raymond proudly shows off his skills walking next to Addie.

Addie, like most other fosters, grew fond of Raymond and began to figure out his personality. “Raymond is like a child, stubborn at home, but good in public. He loves attention, especially being touched and loved on.” Addie mentioned it is hard knowing he’s leaving so soon, but it helps to know that he’s going to help someone and do great things.

Raymond got all the attention of students walking by while sitting in front of the fountain on the UNI campus.
Raymond got all the attention of students walking by while sitting in front of the fountain on the UNI campus.

Makenzie, the foster for Chase, a one-year-and-one-month old black lab-golden retriever mix, has had similar trouble out in public. While she has gotten similar disapproving glimpses, she has had more people concerned for the dog’s well being. “People often don’t understand and ask in a concerned voice if the dogs get to be dogs and have play time.” The answer is a full-hearted yes.

Makenzie and Chase enjoy some off-vest play before heading back inside and back to work.

Each dog has different goals and tasks to work on while they are with their fosters. Chase’s main goal to accomplish is socialization due to his shyness. Susie’s goals are pushing handicapped buttons, carrying items through grocery stores, and not jumping on people. Each dog is unique and uniquely suited to each recipient.

Susie taps the button with her nose, but won’t push it in quite yet.
Susie taps the button with her nose, but won’t push it in quite yet.

Retrieving Freedom trains service dogs for two groups of individuals: veterans and individuals with autism. Each group has specific needs that different dogs can fulfill. Chase, given how calm and laid back his personality is, will be best suited for an individual with autism. Susie, on the other hand, has an abundance of energy that will keep a veteran moving all day.

Susie, Raymond’s sibling, a four-and-a-half-month old yellow lab, is being trained by Molly. Susie is Molly’s third full-time foster. At only eight-weeks old, Susie was a lot to handle. There is a lot to accomplish with a puppy, but Molly knows that you, as a trainer, “have to understand that they [puppies] don’t understand sometimes, but you can’t get mad or frustrated.”

Molly puts on Susie’s vest before heading inside a building so Susie knows it’s time to work.
Molly puts on Susie’s vest before heading inside a building so Susie knows it’s time to work.

Keegan’s work with dogs has lead her to this conclusion. “We have a lot to learn from dogs, we really do. You know they can’t talk. They’re very patient, so they read body language, they read facial expressions. They don’t do anything but love and support people because they don’t know any better and they live in the moment. They don’t hold grudges, they don’t take anything for granted. Dogs are so intuitive and can really help people in a number of ways.” 

Keegan and her dog, a former service dog in training, pose for a picture at the Waverly facility.
Keegan and her dog, a former service dog in training, pose for a picture at the Waverly facility.

If you are interested in learning more, donating, or becoming a foster please visit the Retrieving Freedom website.

Local artist from Waverly, Dan Hatala, painted the mural out front of the Retrieving Freedom facility.

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