Sheri Soltes and her team train shelter dogs to become service animals, then pair them with just the right humans. When it comes to matchmaking love stories, it doesn’t get any better than this.

By Virginia Sole-Smith
Updated December 14, 2015
Sheri Soltes and dog Chechotah
Credit: Dan Winters

On a warm, sunny day in Dripping Springs, Texas, Monica Johnson is trying to get a black retriever named Avalon to come stand by her wheelchair, using a signal called “close.” It’s Team Training Week at Service Dogs, Inc., where dogs in training meet their potential human partners. Avalon, like all the dogs here, has been working with the training team for about eight months. When manager of training Becky McClintock says “close” while moving her hand in just the right way, Avalon immediately bounds into place. But for Monica (pictured opposite), who applied for a service dog in 2014, it’s tougher. She has just met Avalon and has never had a service dog before. When Monica issues the cue for "close," Avalon stays put and stares straight into Monica’s eyes. McClintock explains: “She thinks you’re doing ‘watch.’ Try looking down to the left a little more, so she knows where you want her to go.”

Monica tries again. And again and again. Avalon looks at her quizzically, then back at McClintock. “I know I just need to breathe,” says Monica, now 41, who is a social worker. “I’m just so overwhelmed. I’ve wanted this for so long, but now it’s like, What if she doesn’t like me? What if I mess up this brilliant dog?”

Saved by the Bark

Service Dogs, Inc., rescues dogs “that other people have thrown away,” as founder Sheri Soltes puts it, training them to work as support animals for people with hearing or mobility challenges. At the organization’s facility in the Texas Hill Country, about 20 miles west of Austin, nine trainers work with about 25 dogs a year, all of whom come from shelters in Texas and Oklahoma. Since its founding, SDI has placed more than 1,000 dogs.

It all started in 1988, when Soltes, now 56, was a young trial lawyer unhappy in her work. “Basically [the job] was fighting over money, which I did not find fulfilling,” she says. One day, she visited a doctor for stomach pain that she suspected was stress-induced. “The doctor gave me pills,” she says, “but I never took them.” She decided to change her life instead.

While looking for other opportunities, Soltes happened upon an article about assistance dogs, and the idea galvanized her. “I contacted Assistance Dogs International [which was mentioned in the article] for a list of hearing and service-dog organizations—there were 30 or so—and wrote to all of them,” she says. She asked about starting such an organization herself, as there were none in Texas or nearby, and inquired about fund-raising, setting up a living situation for the dogs, and processing applicants—“all the infrastructure.”

Soltes also researched training and discovered some things that concerned her. “I learned that most dog training involved force, domination, and punishment,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want to train like that.”

A Gentler Way

Mentored by trainers at Sea World, in nearby San Antonio (says Soltes, “they made the mistake of letting me in the door, and I never left”), Soltes began learning a method called “positive reinforcement–based operant conditioning.” With this system, trainers reinforce desired behaviors through rewards. When the dogs do something undesirable, trainers ignore the behavior and redirect rather than punish. Soltes explains that at SDI, “the dogs learn very quickly that when they lie down quietly in the kennel area, they’re going to get a lot of wonderful treats, and when they jump on you, things get super-boring.” From that foundation, SDI’s team of trainers is able to build toward increasingly complex behaviors, like taking laundry out of the dryer or nudging a foot that has fallen off a wheelchair pedal. “Each of these dogs serves its [human] partner 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for at least 10 years,” says Soltes. “Our goal is to make those years happy and meaningful for both the person and the dog, and we couldn’t do that if we were training through force and domination. We have to train through love.”

Make Me a Match

Monica & Avalon
Credit: Dan Winters

One of the reasons Monica and Avalon are a good pair, says Soltes, is that Avalon is high-energy and Monica, who scuba dives and plays wheelchair basketball, is very active.

To say that Monica is used to clearing hurdles is an understatement. Her lower body was paralyzed in a car accident when she was 25, and she works full-time as a hospital social worker, counseling others with spinal-cord injuries like hers.

But learning to work with a service dog is a different kind of challenge. Soltes likens it to learning to drive a stick shift, which she did at age 35. “I try to remember that moment of ‘I cannot do this!’ because that’s how it feels for pretty much every client at some point during Team Training Week,” she says. “Everyone gets exhausted. Sometimes there are tears.”

But the positive environment SDI fosters and the gentle expertise of the team lift up everyone—the people as well as the animals. “Even when I’m getting frustrated, I feel so supported,” says Monica. “They’re all so patient.”

Love Trumps Fear

The dogs embody this same sensitivity and patience, as Pastor Ray McCoy (pictured opposite) can attest. Ray, age 48, the pastor for Believe Ministries, in Lampass, Texas, lives with painful masses inside his spinal cord that can cause him to black out when he moves the wrong way. “It had gotten to the point where my wife was afraid to leave me alone,” says Ray. “We were going to have to consider 24-hour care.” Instead, he got Excalibur, who assists him with everyday tasks. Less bending for Ray means less danger of blackouts. Excalibur also helps Ray up if he falls, reminds him to take his medication, and responds heroically in case of emergency.

Ray and Excalibur
Credit: Dan Winters

Separate from the blackouts, Ray used to experience occasional seizures. Not anymore. Says Ray, “I haven’t had a full-blown seizure in six years.” This is largely due to Excalibur. He can sense when Ray is about to have a seizure even before Ray can—and he alerts Ray and his wife, so they can take measures to stop its progress.

Excalibur also knows that Ray needs to take pain medication every two hours around the clock. In the daytime, he nudges Ray at the right time (no one has a good answer as to how Excalibur knows the time), then heads to the medicine cabinet. At night Excalibur does something even more remarkable. He fetches a loaf of bread from the kitchen, brings it into the bedroom, places it on Ray’s face, and licks Ray until he wakes up. Unbelievably, this behavior was self-taught. Excalibur himself started using a loaf of bread as a cue, perhaps because he’s seen Ray have food with his medicine, and bread is a food that’s easy for Excalibur to reach. “Excalibur is the only reason I’m able to be left alone by my wife and kids,” says Ray.

This is not an overstatement. One day Ray blacked out while filling the bathtub. He hit his head and fell in. Ray regained consciousness as Excalibur was dragging him out by the ankle. When he was safe on the floor, Excalibur ran to fetch his cell phone without Ray’s even issuing a cue.

“The kicker,” says Soltes, “is that Excalibur was terrified of running water.” (A previous owner may have abused the dog by tying him up and spraying him.) For Soltes, this is proof of what training through love can do—and of the extraordinary potential of the dogs that SDI rescues. “Excalibur was able to recognize an emergency, know what action to take, and overcome his own fear to save Ray,” says Soltes. “That’s because of the relationship they’ve built.”

The Right Stuff

Picking which dogs to choose from the shelters is one of the more difficult aspects of the mission at SDI. “I’m not allowed to help anymore,” says Soltes, who has two dogs and 10 cats of her own, and is drawn to rescue any creature with a sad face. Her team has developed strict criteria, focusing on dogs of about 18 to 30 months in age—old enough for the trainers to assess temperament but young enough to ensure plenty of good working years.

“We’re always happy when we adopt black dogs,” says Sheri, “because statistically black dogs and black cats get picked the least at shelters, and that has nothing to do with how great an animal they are.” SDI adopts 18 to 25 dogs a year, with the hope that about 15 will make it all the way through the training program. Those who don’t are adopted as pets (via the SDI website, “It’s not that those dogs flunk out,” says Soltes. “This just wasn’t their dream career.” Usually the reasons are social. Some are not comfortable in a range of public places; others might be unable to maintain enough attention to be there as soon as the clients need them. “They’re more free spirits,” says Soltes. “But they’ve gotten the same training as our service dogs, so they make wonderful pets. And we give our adoptive families all the guidance they’ll need to maintain that behavior.”

Family Ties

SDI puts clients through a thorough application process to ensure that their dogs will continue to be trained and well cared for once they move into their homes. Families are not allowed to own other dogs, which might distract a working animal, and they must commit to giving their dogs a daily exercise and training program, a diet of premium dog food, and regular vet visits.

For Megan Harris, 45, a freelance curriculum consultant in Austin, Texas, the work of caring for her hearing dog, Sherlock, is nothing compared with the peace of mind that he brings her. As a baby, Megan lost the hearing in her left ear due to bacterial meningitis, and by age 37 she was medically deaf in her right ear as well. A cochlear implant helps her hear much of the time. But Megan can’t sleep or bathe with the implant’s processor attached to her scalp, so she’s often not wearing the device at home. “I spent a lot of time feeling unsafe when I was alone at night, because I wasn’t able to hear my daughter call, and I wouldn’t know if someone came into the house,” says Megan. “For a long time, I dismissed my need for a hearing dog. I have such a supportive family, and we were getting by.”

Megan and Sherlock
Credit: Dan Winters

What Megan didn’t realize until Sherlock arrived was that his presence would affect her husband and daughter as well. The first Halloween Sherlock was with the family, it became clear. Knowing that Megan had Sherlock allowed her husband, Adam, to chat with neighbors and their daughter, Amelia, to run ahead to the houses with the best candy. “They didn’t have to worry about me not hearing a person or a car, and I didn’t have to be on high alert,” says Megan. “I’m not sure I had even acknowledged how bad our stress level was until we got Sherlock and suddenly we were free.”

Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the Rent

The hardest part of running a nonprofit like SDI is figuring out how to pay for it. Training costs about $45,000 per dog. And the dogs are placed for free with clients. “I hated the idea of someone who really needs us having to fund-raise to make it happen,” says Soltes. “We’ll do that. They have enough on their plates.” The SDI team patches together a budget each year with a combination of grants, private donations, and money collected at fund-raising events. Soltes says what would allow the organization to help more people and rescue more dogs is a corporate partnership. She would like to see an SDI dog in a national commercial: “I just want you to see a service dog pressing the button on the vending machine or giving a cashier a credit card, then delivering the purchase and the card back to its disabled partner. That’s the kind of thing these dogs do every day!” In the meantime, Soltes is grateful for every donation that comes SDI’s way. “I tend to use good karma as a business plan,” she jokes.

And somehow it works. Even with the constant uphill efforts of financing the operation, it’s enormously rewarding. “The best part of the job is when you’re driving away from the shelter with a dog and you know that he doesn’t ever have to go back there,” says Soltes. “I love looking a dog in the eye and telling him, ‘You’re safe now. You’re going to have a good life.’”

A Win-Win

That goes double, of course, because it’s not just the dogs who get a better life. To ensure that, after Team Training at the facility, SDI works for three months with dogs on specific tasks in their new surroundings. When Monica and Avalon go home together, SDI will come weekly to teach Avalon to retrieve Monica’s wheelchair when it’s out of reach, help her out of bed in the morning by tugging a rope, assist at the grocery store, become comfortable in restaurants, and more. Avalon will also be prepared to accompany Monica to work every day, where the patients of stroke and spinal-cord injuries whom Monica helps will see the possibilities of life with a service dog. “When you’re newly injured, it’s dark for a lot of us,” says Monica. “You think, That’s it—I’ll never be able to live on my own or do anything for myself. Avalon is going to bring a lot of hope to a lot of people.”

And so, on the second day of Team Training, Monica is back, reenergized and ready to try again. Trainer Becky McClintock looks on. “Close!” Monica tells Avalon, while dropping her shoulder and looking down to the left. This time, it works. Avalon hops over to the left side of Monica’s wheelchair and sits, tail wagging with pride. Monica rubs her dog’s head and lavishes her with praise, because Avalon is exactly where she’s supposed to be.