Above and Beyond

Hawai’i Canines for Independence raises puppies to do a lot more than fetch. Service dogs are helping local residents gain back their independence.

Everything up until now has been getting me ready for this,” says Maureen Maurer, noting her business background, her years as a trainer for Maui’s Special Olympics and her love for dogs. These elements in Maurer’s life always seemed completely unrelated—until she and her husband co-founded Hawai‘i Canines for Independence (HCI). Since 2000, the Maui-based nonprofit has been training service dogs for Hawai‘i’s paraplegic and quadriplegic community.

Program founder Maureen Maurer uses a wheelchair to train service dogs. Volunteers Elaine Randall (left) and Sharon Dahlquist assist her. They’re at Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center in Kahului, which donates space for the organization’s training. photo: Matt Thayer

Nearly 20 years ago, Maurer, a Seattle native, moved to the Islands and established herself as a successful certified public accountant. Though she always felt a higher calling, she found it difficult to leave her 15-year career, until a tumor prompted a change in her life. “It turned out to be a blessing,” she says of the benign tumor doctors removed six years ago. “It made me realize how short life can be.” With her new outlook on life, Maurer dedicated herself to creating a career about which she was passionate.

HCI purchases Labrador and golden retrievers from breeders in London, Australia and Maui. Each puppy admitted to the service-dog training program is required to pass an extensive background check, including lineage research up to five generations. For 18 months, the trainee pups are raised by volunteers in their homes—though a puppy can be released at any time due to health or temperament problems. “It’s so important for us to get the right puppy,” Maurer says. Dogs that don’t pass muster are used instead for therapeutic-pet programs.

Graduated dogs assist people who have a wide range of disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. “We place service dogs with people who want to regain or increase their independence,” Maurer stresses, noting that dogs are not placed with people who are still mobile.

Although there is a large market for service dogs in Hawai‘i, the demand is usually met by Mainland organizations. HCI boasts two benefits that few other organizations can: a shorter waiting list and free training and placement. “We want to place dogs with people who have the greatest need, not just those that can afford it,” Maurer says. Businesses and individuals sponsor puppies, covering everything from the initial purchase (around $1,500) to the years of training, veterinary costs and follow-up for the lifetime of the dog.

Want to host a puppy in your family’s home? In need of a service dog? Want to volunteer or make a donation?

contact Hawai‘i Canines for Independence:

P.O. Box 790626, Pa-‘ia, HI 96779, (808) 250-5799 mo@HawaiiCanines.com

Before Maurer’s efforts, locals waited up to five years to receive trained service dogs. Average wait time now is just one year. Since opening six years ago, Maurer has trained and placed more than 30 service dogs across the state.

People who most often associate service dogs with the blind might be surprised at how much these dogs can do. “We have people who haven’t left the house alone for 25 years,” she says. But with a service dog, they have the confidence to go out on their own. Knight, an HCI service dog placed with a quadriplegic, can unzip a backpack, give a wallet to the cashier and carry the shopping bag home, Maurer says. “It’s really amazing when [dogs] are able to help people get their life back,” she adds.

Twenty years ago, Dennis Okada lost the use of his body from the waist down after a scuba-diving incident. After years of depending on family, friends and a pet dog, Okada received a service dog from HCI in 2004. “It’s so good to have a dog like Jetson,” he says. The 75-pound Labrador retriever responds to over 100 commands, including turning lights on and off, pulling Okada’s manual wheelchair and opening the refrigerator. “Get it” is Okada’s favorite and most used command, he says, explaining that Jetson can retrieve just about anything he points to.

“Being in a wheelchair, to have a dog be able to do that, is very convenient and many times necessary,” Okada says.

Although Jetson can open doors, retrieve a ringing cordless phone and pick up anything Okada drops, he has time to be a regular dog, too. “I let him run around, but he’s very aware of where I am, he’ll come and check on me. He knows when it’s business and when it’s play.”

HCI is committed to raising more dogs like Jetson for the Islands, Maurer says. In the coming months, the organization will build its permanent home on 2.5 acres of land purchased from Haleakala Ranch. “To have a permanent facility ensures that the program will continue,” Maurer says. The new facility will have training rooms, a grooming center, kennels and a wheelchair accessible tree house and nature trails.

“She doesn’t mess around,” Okada says of Maurer’s dedication to HCI. “Any dog that finishes the program—you know they’re top of the line.”

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai‘i’s people. For information: www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org.