Service Dogs on Farms – Working Hard and Changing Lives

Ken Tudor, DVM
October 14, 2015
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Did you know that there are only about two million Americans farms? That means that less than 1% (.6%) of the American population is producing all of the food we and many other countries eat. But did you know the average age of these farmers is 58.3 years old and getting older every year? In Nebraska, the state with the youngest farmers, the average age is 55.7 years!

“People think of farmers as rugged and tough,” says Jackie Allenbrand of PHARM Dog USA. But many farmers and ranchers in these advanced years are working with disabilities, over 1,000. That is why Ms. Allenbrand founded PHARM (Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri) Dog USA. Her nonprofit organization trains and places dogs to help disabled farmers and ranchers continue working in Missouri and other Midwestern states.

“When you see a big, burly farmer crying after they get a dog because they know they can keep farming, you see what a difference it’s making. That’s what drives us,” says Allenbrand of this one of a kind group in the U.S.

Margaret Stafford, a reporter for the Miami Herald tells the story of a lucky disabled farmer in Missouri better than I could.

The demanding daily chores of a farmer were always a little different for Alda Owen, who is legally blind, able to see some blurry shapes and very close objects but not much else.

It was like that for years on the 260-acre farm she shares with her husband in northwest Missouri until a bull knocked a gate into her, requiring 60 stitches in her left leg. Owen’s daughter decided her proud mother needed a helping hand — or in this case, a wagging tail: Sweet Baby Jo, a friendly, energetic border collie that helps control the couple’s Angus cattle.

“She’s made it possible for me to be a productive person, to keep the life we’ve built,” Owen said of the dog, which she received in 2012.

The emotional support is as important as the work Sweet Baby Jo does, Owen said. Now 62, Owen spent most of her life hiding her disability and staying within a small comfort zone. Since she got Sweet Baby Jo, Owen has started traveling and speaking at panels about farmers with disabilities. “It gave me back my self-esteem and pride,” Owen said.

PHARM trains Labrador retrievers and lab mixes to retrieve tools, carry buckets, and open gates while border collies are trained to herd and control animals. Farmers do not pay for the dogs, which are donated or rescued from shelters. Training is paid by agricultural rehabilitation groups. Other grants and donations provide food and other needs for the dogs.

Stafford recounts another story in her article:

Troy Balderston, who has been in a wheelchair since a car accident in 2010 left him a quadriplegic, said he wouldn’t be able to work on a feedlot in Norton, Kansas, or live on his farm near Beaver City, Neb., without Duke, his border collie provided by PHARM Dog.

“Duke keeps me safe, he keeps the cattle from running me over,” Balderston said. “He goes everywhere I go. He’s a great worker and a great companion.”

Finances are the only thing keeping Ms. Allenbrand from expanding PHARM Dogs USA to other states. She hopes for future corporate involvement to make that happen because as she says, “there are farmers all over the country who need this service… It’s important that we help them.”

Dr. Ken Tudor