THIS EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELLED BECAUSE OF THE NC STATE OF EMERGENCY OVER COVID-19.
At age 12, Kyria Henry founded the nonprofit paws4people to empower and help folks find companionship, joy and independence through dog ownership. paws4people provides service dogs to families, veterans, civilians, and all clients with physical or emotional disabilities at no cost. Twenty years later, she has dedicated her life the organization, which now runs various programs: paws4vets, paws4seniors, paws4prisons, paws4education and paws4reading.
Sam Cleary, director of puppy development centers, says each dog goes through a rigorous training program before they can be placed with a client. “Our dogs learn 100 command sets,” Cleary says. “They are being taught very basic commands: ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ ‘stay,’ ‘leave it,’ as well as disability tasks.”
All puppies are born and raised in Wilmington. From birth to three weeks old, they go through the developmental stage of intense socialization and exposure. Once they reach 20 weeks, they are moved to the paws4prisons training program located throughout West Virginia correctional facilities. It functions as part of paws4prisons, an inmate rehabilitation project, aiding inmates in recovering from PTSD and CPTSD. The pups remain there until they’re 12-16 months.
Once puppies have completed their basic command training, they return to Wilmington to begin public access training. They are exposed to new public environments, like retail stores, restaurants, public transportation, etc. During this stage service-dog training program is conducted mostly by UNCW’s undergraduate students.
Once the dogs fully complete their training program, each enters into an intervention transfer training with its potential client/handler. “We are able to place dogs with people of various types of disabilities,” Cleary says. “We train dogs for children that might be on the spectrum or have Down Syndrome or allergies. We also train dogs for veterans . . . as well as clients with mobility disability.”
paws4people monitors the relationship between the dog and client, which can last 18 to 24 months. Each client must learn to control, regulate and mitigate the dog’s symptoms. Once this nearly two-year process is complete, each assistance dog must pass a full public access test, and facility dogs must pass a full facility observation test to receive a black vest—essentially the equivalent of a learner’s permit.
The dogs are sent home, and after 60-90 days the client or handler returns with the dog for a final test, to ensure they have maintained all handling standards. If successful, the assistance dogs will receive a red vest and facility dogs a green vest. By the end of this process, their service dogs are valued at $60,000.
paws4people host around two or three fundraisers each year, but also are beneficiaries for other events annually. For nearly 10 years the organization has held an annual 5k and 1-mile fun walk. Last year the nonprofit joined forces with the NC Azalea Festival to reach a larger demographic.
Paws on Parade is “the official dog party of Wilmington,” and will be held at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on March 14. It will feature a 5K run, 1 mile fun walk, professional pup portraits, a Canine Court Pageant, a puppy kissing booth, and more, as a prelude to the 72nd annual Azalea Festival, held April 1-5.
The partnership between the two nonprofits began in 2018, when the Azalea Festival board of directors convened to create a six-year vision plan. “One of those visions was to create new events that reach a niche or minority, or some kind of specialized market or demographic, that we weren’t reaching with all of our other festival events,” executive director Alison Baringer English says.
Since city special-event regulations prohibit dogs at Azalea Fest’s downtown’s street fair, the board saw this as a perfect opportunity to extend festivities to pet-lovers. paws4people stood out to them for its long-standing contributions to the community.
2019 was the first Paws on Parade, which was well-received within the community. Azalea Fest anticipates around 250,000 guests attending various festival events each year, with profits to enhance and improve each event.
Paws on Parade costs $10 for spectators, $35 for race registration, and pet portraits and the kissing booth are priced individually. The race starts at 4 p.m. and winds through the scenic path of Greenfield Lake (bring your dogs as running partners), with awards for the top three winners in each category (solo male and female, male and female with a dog) following at 5 p.m.
The festival will host its Canine Court Pageant at 5:30 p.m., where attendees may enter their pup in four categories for $25: Best Trick, Looks Only a Mama Could Love (a.k.a Ugliest Dog), Most Obedient and Best Southern Dressed. “It’s fun to watch the dogs perform, or sometimes they don’t perform and that’s even funnier,” English says.
Local vendors will be Active Care Chiropractic, Omega Sports, Pure Barre Wilmington, O2 Fitness, Green Compass, C.A.R.E., Camp Run-A-Mutt, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office—K9 Unit, Derby4Dogs, paws4people Puppy Kissing Booth, and NCAF Coin Club. Plus, Tasty Tees will be serving gourmet grilled cheeses. Onsite concessions will be available, too, and the Azalea Belles will make an appearance. Funds raised for the event will be split evenly between paws4people and the Azalea Festival. Folks can register by going to ncazaleafestival.org.