The Disabled Dog Whisperer Finding Service Dogs For Kids In Need

With Sunny, a German/Belgian shepherd mix by her side, Tabitha Bell is helping kids who can't afford service dogs find a companion.

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Diagnosed in fourth grade with a debilitating form of Muscular Dystrophy called Charcot Marie Tooth disease, Tabitha Bell endured six surgeries and still struggled to walk. She fell often and was unable to get up by herself. She needed to hold onto someone to get around. That all changed when Sunny, a German/Belgian shepherd mix came into her life. She was 12.

Since Sunny kept her steady and made her stronger, Tabitha vowed to help others. She started Pawsitive Pawsibilities, a nonprofit that provides service dogs, free-of-charge, to people with disabilities. In the past six years, she’s raised $130,000 to place nine dogs that are helping children and adults conquer the challenges of paralysis, Cerebral Palsy, and PTSD.

“The increased mobility allowed me to be more independent and to walk on my own,” she said.

Life Before Sunny

Before Sunny came along, things were very different for Tabitha.

“I was weak and remember receiving the Presidential Fitness Award in second grade because I tried so hard,” she said. “Some students and parents objected, but my physical education teacher told my parents I tried. He believed I’d never be able to do a sit up. He was right. My mom hired personal trainers to help me gain strength and balance. By fourth grade, I was falling down at school several times a day and could not step on a curb without assistance. I had great friends and went everywhere holding the hand or arm of one of my friends.”

“I fell in love with him when we first met… I knew he was going to change my life.”

Sunny was a little over two when he came to live with Tabitha. “I fell in love with him when we first met,” she said. “I remember the day I stepped off a curb all by myself. It seems like a simple thing for most people; for me, just walking independently, let alone navigating curbs and simple steps, was unimaginable. I knew he was going to change my life.”

She wanted to pay it forward. Her goal was to purchase a service dog for another child. Unfortunately, the wait time can be two or more years and the cost’s prohibitive to many. Sunny was raised as a service dog and cost her parents $14,000.

Tabitha Bell.

Making A Pawsitive Difference

Today, Pawsitive Pawsibilities is working on placing its 10th service dog.

Not everyone was on board with Tabitha getting a service dog. Her orthopedic surgeon at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego was skeptical. “He came around after watching me walk down the hall barefoot, without stabilizing shoes, just holding onto Sunny’s harness,” she said. “He’s now a huge fan of service dogs and told me he could use a dozen or so to help kids he was operating on. He was surprised by the cost.”

She didn’t want that to keep others from getting service dogs. “When we first started we located a girl my age (12) and purchased a wheelchair assistance dog for her,” Tabitha, who is 18 now, said.

The dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Attie, was trained to retrieve the girl’s crutches, cell phone, and other necessities. “Attie helps her walk like Sunny helps me,” Tabitha said. “We’ve remained friends and she even flew out to visit me and spoke at my high school.”

Tabitha Bell with a new friend who received a yellow lab service dog from Pawsitive Pawsibnilities.

Finding Service Dogs For Kids In Need

Tabitha works through referrals from doctors and physical therapists to find recipients for the dogs. “After reviewing the recipient’s needs, we put them in touch with a trainer,” she explained. “Most of our trainers search dog breeders for dogs that are around 18 months old. Some of the dogs were bred for show and have obedience training. Sometimes, when they don’t win championships, the breeders are willing to sell them. It means our clients have beautiful dogs who are smart and trained to provide specific types of assistance.”

To raise money to purchase the dogs, Tabitha hosts annual concerts, 5K runs, and other fundraisers. “We run the Super Paw 5K in Utah and this year,” she said, “I’m attempting to run a Super Paw Fun Run at UC Berkeley (where she attends college).”

In the past, she participated in the Fun Runs in a wheelchair with Sunny by her side. This year she plans on walking the entire route.

Pawsitive Pawsibilities also helps kids organize lemonade stands and bake sales. “Some of the sales have raised over $250 in a few hours,” she said. “The kids have fun raising money and customers like knowing the children are involved in a positive project. I believe it’s important for children to embrace serving others early.”

Tabitha Bell with Sunny by her side and a friend with his service dog relaxing after a 5K.

Paying It Forward

Tabitha’s a recipient of the 2018 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which honors 15 young people from across the U.S. and Canada who have made a positive difference to others. The winners receive $10,000 to support their service work or higher education.

“Without Sunny, I’d have been in a wheelchair and never had the confidence, ability, or opportunity to pursue my own dreams.”

“Tabitha turned a difficult situation,” Barbara Ann Richman, executive director of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes said, “into something that is doing so much good for other people with disabilities. In doing so, she reminds us all of our capacity to transform our own lives and those of others.”

She’s also teaching others about service dogs. “Without them we cannot live and function independently,” she said. “As more people understand that, they’re more likely to understand why service dogs have a few privileges most pets do not. It makes life easier for those of us who rely on our dogs every day.”

“Having my service dog changed my life. Without Sunny, I’d have been in a wheelchair and never had the confidence, ability, or opportunity to pursue my own dreams.”

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