Shelter Dogs Become Service Dogs Thanks to Paws Giving Independence

What could be better than matching a dog rescued from a shelter with a disabled person in need of help? Paws Giving Independence, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, takes in shelter dogs and trains them for up to two years before they are certified to be matched with someone in need of a service dog. Some of the dogs also become facility dogs.


While some organizations breed dogs to be trained as service dogs, Paws Giving Independence is one of the groups that prefers to save dogs from shelters. Donna Kosner, one of the founders, told Shelter Me why they chose shelter dogs for their program: “We know there are a lot of great dogs in shelters.We work with our own animal control and rescue groups – we are getting a girl next week and maybe will name her Liberty.” 

The group prefers to get dogs right at the age when they are often abandoned in shelters. Dog adolescence is from 10 months up to two years of age (most dogs surrendered to shelters are adolescents and seniors). Kosner said, “Sometimes we do puppies, but we actually like to take dogs in from 10 months to 1 ½ years old – we can see size and temperament.”  

Riley at school
Riley at school

For Riley, a black lab mix who was rescued from Houston Animal Control, it really did take a village to make her a service dog. “A volunteer moved to Texas and was volunteering for the shelter there,” explained Kosner.  She met two-year-old Riley and saw her potential. The former volunteer was coming to the Chicago area to visit family and brought Riley with her.  

Riley was fostered by a student at Bradley University, Gretchen. When Gretchen graduated before Riley completed the training, Steven Wright, another student from Illinois State University did the final months of training. In addition to having college students help with the socialization and training of the dogs, Paws Giving Independence also has the help of residents of the local prison, Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois. just did a news clip on this program. The video is very touching — it’s very obvious that not only are the prisoners helping the dogs, the dogs are really helping the prisoners.

 So the ways in which Paws Giving Independence helps others are multiple and marvelous. The group certainly helps the puppies and dogs who might be euthanized in kill shelters. The group helps those who work to train the dogs, both students and prisoners, realize the satisfaction and reward of taking an untrained, unsocialized dog and turning it — literally — into a productive member of society. And finally, the group helps the person or facility receiving the dog by enabling that person to be more independent, and that facility to use the dog to empower students or facility residents.
file_001Riley, the black lab mix from Texas, now works at an elementary school in Highwood, Illinois. She goes home each night with Will Loftus, a dual language, third grade teacher. Riley has even learned some commands in Spanish since the school is a dual language school where Spanish is spoken daily. (See the video of Riley showing off her Spanish skills.)
Loftus created an elaborate plan with a three-year implementation period during which Riley would have more and more of a presence in the school. By the third year, the thought is that teachers who have had some training with Loftus will be able to “check out” Riley for some time in their classrooms. Riley will then truly be an “Oak Terrace dog!”


Peanut, the district's first facility dog
Peanut, the district’s first facility dog

Riley replaced Peanut, the facility dog who worked with a teacher who two years ago was transferred to another school in the district. The students had loved to see Peanut in the halls, and when she left, they missed having a furry friend in the building. She provided the unconditional love that some students sorely needed. Peanut was called the “magic dog,” because if you were sad or mad, petting her was the cure! Riley fills that role nicely.
Loftus told Shelter Me, “Seeing the relationships the students have built with Riley has been one of the most profound achievements of my career.  Their time with Riley has increased their confidence as learners and as people.  Also, Riley has been a much-needed friend on countless occasions when someone needed just that. I greatly look forward to collaborating with our staff to create new ways in which Riley can help students learn and grow.”
Interested in working with Paws Giving Independence to provide suitable dogs for their program? Interested in getting a facility dog for your school or hospital or nursing home? Contact them through their website or their Facebook page. Consider donating to their program. There is a huge need for service dogs for  myriad purposes: disabilities, companion dogs, facility dogs, hearing dogs, stability dogs, dogs for veterans with PTSD, and more. There are not enough organizations that provide such dogs free to the recipient. And there are even fewer that use dogs rescued from high-kill shelters.
Even untrained dogs make a huge difference in our lives every day. But these dogs, who help provide independence in some instances and unconditional love in others to those in need, are special.

Pamela Kramer

​Animal lover and rescuer. Lives with 4 cats, 4 dogs, 1 bird, 2 frogs and usually one foster animal (and very understanding husband). Reviews books (especially about animals) and educates children about compassion toward animals. Former household animals include rabbits, rats, and other assorted creatures. Also writes at


  1. Lori Dyar says:

    I have work with this group. They took in one of my fosters, Lily. She was a fantastic dog and scheduled to be euthanized the next day. She has completed her training and is now in place providing stability assistance to her human. I love this group and the work they do!

  2. Kat Paparone says:

    I rescued a 2 yr old American Pitt Bull in April of this yr, she’s wonderful! I’ve had many back surgeries and in need of her Not to pull me or chase after anything. Any suggestions for training and who is best to assist in the process? Thank you ahead of time for your feedback

  3. Scott says:

    Inspiring! That is awesome!

  4. Alice says:

    Thank you So much ‘Paws Giving Independence’ for rescuing these dogs in high kill shelters! I feel there is hope toward rescuing these poor helpless healthy dogs who are being put down because of whatever reason they use. I will share your posting and I pray someday there will be something like this in San Antonio TX. Thank you again and may God Bless you and all involved in this program and hope for these beautiful animals.

  5. Donna L Kosner says:

    Thank you so much, Pamela, for the great article.

  6. Daryl graveline says:

    Do you have training in calif ?

    1. Pamela Kramer says:

      This group is in Illinois. California is the home of CCI, Canine Companions for Independence. That organization breeds the service dogs they train.

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