Maureen Maurer and her husband Will Maurer at their training facility on Bainbridge Island.
The organization specializes in training service dogs to help adults and children with limited mobility, as well as full-time facility dogs for hospitals and courthouses.
By Allison Nitch
A positive and lasting relationship begins with the right fit—whether it’s with a friend, spouse or colleague. The same holds true for the dynamic shared between a handler and an assistance dog.
Before such a connection develops, a dog must complete intensive training and demonstrate they’re capable of helping people living with special needs, illness or trauma.
That’s where Assistance Dogs Northwest (ADNW), a nonprofit organization co-founded by Seattle University alumna Maureen Dempsey Maurer, ’86, and her husband Will Maurer, comes in. The organization specializes in training service dogs to help adults and children with limited mobility, as well as full-time facility dogs for hospitals and courthouses.
“Daily visits from a hospital facility dog can bring joy and instill a sense of hope,” says Maurer, ADNW executive director with more than 20 years of experience in the assistance dogs industry. “Our courthouse facility dogs help children who are victims of crime find their voices during interviews, medical exams and while testifying in court.”
On a sunny morning in June, the bucolic ADNW campus tucked away on Bainbridge Island is buzzing with activity. Inside a bright and airy converted barn, the last day of a training camp for the season is underway. Maureen, who oversees the training, instructs two new handlers and their Labrador retriever assistance dogs through the 90 commands they’ve been fine-tuning throughout the week. Meanwhile ADNW staff members set up a variety of distraction scenarios the dogs may encounter, including someone trying to pet them and food being dropped on the floor.
One handler is Mike Chalupa, a retired farmer and Bainbridge resident living with multiple sclerosis. Chalupa has quickly bonded with his dog, Brittany, who eagerly maintains strong eye contact with him throughout each command. She proudly wags her tail whenever he enthusiastically praises her for a job well done.
“Mo’s knowledge and years of experience truly make this program what it is,” says Chalupa. “What she does is just incredible. I never thought something like this could happen.”
“It’s amazing how many tasks Brittany can help Mike with,” says wife Janet Chalupa. “She’ll warm his heart for years to come.”
Another handler-in-training is Julie Siepmann, clinical services director and principal forensic interviewer for a child abuse intervention center. She’s been paired with MacDougal, who will serve as a courthouse facility dog.
“MacDougal will work to help lower the stress and anxiety children may feel during medical exams and forensic interviews,” says Siepmann. “The victims are the only ones that didn’t ask to be there. Also, due to the difficult nature of our work in the legal system, Mac’s presence during multi-disciplinary team meetings is another form of comfort and support he’ll provide.”
“I’ve wanted to train assistance dogs since I was about 10 years old after reading Follow My Leader, by James B. Garfield,” says Maurer. “It’s about a boy blinded in an accident who receives a guide dog named Leader. It left me fascinated with the idea of dogs helping people.”
At Seattle U Maurer earned her bachelor’s in business administration, majoring in accounting, and then went on to become a certified public accountant, all the while nurturing her passion to help others. “My husband and I volunteered for years with Special Olympics where we enjoyed working alongside people with special needs,” she says.
But it wasn’t until a pivotal event in her 30s that Maurer found herself at a crossroad.
“A health scare caused me to reevaluate my life,” she says. “Having been given a second chance, I sold my CPA practice and returned to school to learn how to train assistance dogs. What seemed like the worst situation turned out to be one of the biggest blessings, as it prompted me to follow my childhood dream and find my true purpose.”
New handler Mike Chalupa with his dog Brittany practice a command together under Maureen’s supervision.
“For these clients, if a skilled service dog can help minimize just a few of the challenges faced every day, it can allow that individual to focus and be open to new experiences and opportunities, perhaps getting a job, going to school or even just going out to the grocery store.”
After Maureen earned a master’s of science in animal behavior with a specialization in medical bio-detection (training dogs to sniff out and identify human illnesses), the Maurers began as volunteers in 1995 within the assistance dogs industry before establishing Assistance Dogs of Hawaii in Maui in 2000. In 2008, they started a puppy-raising group in Seattle, where volunteers raised puppies until they were old enough to travel to Maui for advanced training.
Meanwhile, requests for assistance dogs from the Pacific Northwest increased. This became the genesis for Assistance Dogs Northwest in 2016. ADNW opened a satellite office in Portland in 2018, specializing in hospital facility dogs for the greater Pacific Northwest. When not in use, the satellite location provides lodging for families with hospitalized children.
Aside from a small application and training camp fee, ADNW provides assistance dogs and support free of charge. “We receive no government funding and rely on donations from individuals, foundations and businesses to support our programming,” says Maurer.
Maurer has a Master of Science in Canine Studies and has partnered with hospitals and clinical laboratories to conduct research on medical bio-detection. The New England Journal of Medicine and National Geographic have recognized ADNW’s findings. Maurer and her team also collaborate with international groups, most recently with a foundation in Japan working to incorporate hospital facility dogs for the first time.
“For these clients, if a skilled service dog can help minimize just a few of the challenges faced every day, it can allow that individual to focus and be open to new experiences and opportunities, perhaps getting a job, going to school or even just going out to the grocery store,” says Stacy Goodfellow, ’18 MNPL, ADNW board advisor.
Maureen takes a break from training camp to cuddle with some assistance dogs.
“Assistance dogs” is a broad term that includes both service and facility dogs. Labradors, Golden Retrievers or a mix of the two make for ideal assistance dogs “due to their steady temperament, gentle nature and desire to please,” explains Maurer. “It’s important to obtain puppies with the best chance of making it through the rigorous health and temperament screening process needed to graduate.”
ADNW partners with industry leaders worldwide to receive purpose-bred Labrador and Golden Retriever puppies that come from more than 50 generations of working-dog lines, says Maurer. “We have placed more than 100 assistance dog teams and counting!”
What makes ADNW unique is its focus on quality rather than quantity. Training classes do not exceed more than three handlers and their dogs. “The training classes are boutique-style, which keeps the experience from being overwhelming,” says Janet Chalupa.
Occasionally, it’s obvious a dog isn’t cut out for a career as an assistance dog. In that case, training ceases in favor of what Maurer describes as a “career change”—meaning they’re “placed as a beloved pet with a family on the waiting list.”
A close up of one of the great dogs at Assistance Dogs NW.
Maureen Maurer with some important ‘students’ at the training facility.
During training, assistance puppies learn approximately 90 different commands over the course of 18 to 24 months. Staff observes every puppy to determine the role they’re best suited for: service or facility dog.
“We look at each puppy’s temperament and preferences—some have an affinity for children or elderly people,” says Maurer. “Service dogs are a one-person dog with a strong work ethic, hospital facility dogs are very gentle and love everyone and courthouse facility dogs are friendly yet stoic with the ability to ignore environmental distractions, which is vital during court hearings.”
During the last of four training levels, puppies are carefully matched with an applicant on the waiting list. Survey forms are completed for each applicant by individuals who know them well. In-depth conversations regarding health history, current abilities and challenges are part of the process that “helps ensure an ideal match with a dog based on factors like responsiveness and assertiveness levels,” says Maurer.
The dog then enters the graduate level of training, where the focus is on the specific skillset needed by the handler such retrieving, opening drawers, turning lights on/off and alerting someone that their handler is in distress.
Once the dogs complete all four levels of training, they are matched with a partner and attend a two to three week team training camp at the Bainbridge Island campus where they learn to work together as a team. ADNW then provides lifetime follow-up support, which is especially important for people with progressive disabilities.
Visit assistancedogsnorthwest.org to learn more about Assistance Dogs Northwest and its variety of program offerings.
ADNW pups pose with a letterman blanket belonging to Maureen’s father Paul Dempsey who, along with Maureen’s mother Beverly Beswick, graduated from SU in 1958.
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