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Like a Dog


By Betsa Marsh


At five months, most puppies are eviscerating sofas and watering chair legs. So who are these collar scholars roaming the Miami campus, exquisitely behaved in every classroom, restaurant, and bookstore? They’re the elite corps of 4 Paws for Ability Miami, young service dogs in training. At the other end of the leads are Miami students who have dedicated themselves to socializing these cuddly helpmates round the clock. The dogs are destined to serve young children and veterans with special needs.

4 Paws for Ability at Miami University

4 Paws dogs now proudly prance down Slant Walk because of the, yes, dogged persistence of Kristin McNamara ’13. The special education major first suggested a branch of 4 Paws for Ability at Miami when she was a sophomore. She received a resounding chorus of “No, thank you,” but never gave up.

After creating an official student organization, McNamara and her roommate Kristy Lind, a history major, interviewed and selected the first round of 4 Paws foster parents. The volunteers trained at 4 Paws for Ability headquarters in Xenia, Ohio, received their crates, food, and vests, and, most important, their 3-month-old trainee service dogs.

Since that first class, McNamara has shepherded 11 dogs and fosters through the program. At the end of each semester, the dogs return to headquarters for more training and their ultimate match to a person with special needs. Some dogs help with hearing and mobility issues, others with autism, seizure, and diabetes needs.

McNamara stands tall at every puppy graduation. Each success is a tribute to her honorary little sister, the late Anna MacConnell.

In high school, McNamara was working in career development for early childhood education, volunteering at local schools in Centerville, Ohio. She went to a fundraiser for a service dog, where she met Anna and her family, and began a relationship that continues beyond Anna’s short life.

Deaf and blind, Anna also had a congenital heart defect. McNamara joined Anna and her mother at the intense 12-day training session at 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, and celebrated with the family when the goldendoodle named Acadia came to live and work with 7-year-old Anna.

“Cadi went to school with Anna, and anywhere else she went,” McNamara recalls. “I got to meet other families in the class and saw how well 4 Paws matches dogs with kids. Anna and Cadi were both very strong-willed, and they both liked to have their alone time.”

Anna was just 11 when she died in 2012, “and Cadi was on her bed in the hospital,” McNamara recalls. Cadi continues to live with the MacConnells, and McNamara joined them when her parents moved to Virginia and she began student teaching in Oakwood, Ohio.

“Anna wouldn’t want me to sit around being sad, but to be out there using my skills,” McNamara says. “She’s watching over me and guiding me.”

The night Anna died, a new litter of puppies was born at 4 Paws in Xenia. Founder Karen Shirk gives each litter a theme, and these six little Labradors became Anna’s Sunlight. McNamara chose the only female chocolate lab, Liora, “my light” in Hebrew, to be her next service dog.

Like all 4 Paws pups in training, Liora first headed to prison, to be socialized with inmates in Rover Rehab. The dogs master potty training and basic obedience before they arrive at Miami.

“The dogs are all trained and ready to go, so they’re basically teaching you,” McNamara says. She is one of the few foster parents in special ed; other students come from such fields as biology, speech pathology, and mass communication.

“All the trainers have become huge advocates for persons with special needs and service dogs,” McNamara says. “We get a lot of questions, and the fosters talk about our goal to enrich the lives of people with disabilities."

Such an awareness shift is just one benefit of 4 Paws Miami that Kathy McMahon-Klosterman, associate professor in the College of Education, Health and Society, has noticed since McNamara brought the program to campus. She and graduate student advisor Molly Kelly-Elliott are co-advisers of the student organization.

“Studies show that the puppies in prison benefit prisoners, building empathy and responsibility,” McMahon-Klosterman says. “It’s the same thing with students, building responsibility and providing them with the opportunity to give service to the larger community, the disability community.

“I’m in admiration of the students for training the dogs. Generally, I see a maturing, as the students understand that people have a variety of needs. Disability is part of the diversity of human beings. The trainers now don’t look at people with disabilities as being in deficit, but that they just need an alternate way of doing things. A dog can be a person’s hands, a person’s ears.”

4 Paws Miami dogs head out across the country to serve children and veterans. Each furry graduate, McNamara says, “is keeping Anna’s memory alive.”


Kristin McNamara ’13 and Liora.


Betsa Marsh, a freelance writer in Cincinnati, has her own canine companions, Ike and Selkie.