Professor receives grant to expand Service Dog Awareness program

Photo courtesy of Darbi Haynes-Lawrence

Olivia Eiler

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has awarded a WKU faculty member a grant to expand a Service Dog Awareness Program.

Darbi Haynes-Lawrence, an associate professor in child and family studies, received the grant of $5,000 from the Fund’s Small But Great Grants program, which funds organizations that address specific community needs.

Haynes-Lawrence’s Service Dog Awareness Program educates people on how to act around service dogs.



Haynes-Lawrence recognized the need to educate individuals on service dog etiquette through personal experience.

Haynes-Lawrence has multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that can cause nerve damage, according to the Mayo Clinic. The Indiana Canine Assistant Network paired Haynes-Lawrence with service dog Jaeger two years ago to assist her.

Although being paired with Jaeger assisted Haynes-Lawrence in living with multiple sclerosis, adapting to life with a service dog was not without challenges.

“[My family and I] were psyched because service dogs are cool,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “And then we went to Target. We walked in, and the attention that we got from the community was terrible. Jaeger was fascinating to the community, but we couldn’t go in and grab a gallon of milk. We couldn’t do anything without being bombarded: people trying to touch the dog, people running screaming because they would see a dog.”

The experience also impacted her daughter, Sami, who was in fifth grade when her mother was paired with Jaeger.

“That took a toll on my daughter: people giving us this attention,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “It was one thing that she was watching her mom decline. I went from being physically active to not being able to walk, in and out of a wheelchair. I have a really bad tremor, so I wiggle when I walk. It’s mortifying for a little girl who’s turning into a teenager. Parents are mortifying when they’re normal, but she’s watching her mom through all this stuff and then having attention from the community.”

The family decided to address the issue head-on.

“If there’s a problem, we’ve got to fix it instead of laying around and crying about it,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “I asked [Sami] what we should do. And she said, ‘Come talk to my class.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’”

Program Beginnings and Expansion

Haynes-Lawrence and Jaeger presented to Sami’s fifth-grade class in the small town of Newburgh, Indiana. Haynes-Lawrence created three teaching objectives for improving behavior around service dogs: don’t touch the dog, don’t talk to the dog and ask the handler polite questions. She printed the objectives on pencils to distribute to the elementary students.

“The kids — you would of thought I had given them a bucket full of gold,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “They were thrilled. It was a pencil.”

Word-of-mouth informed other area teachers about Haynes-Lawrence’s Service Dog Awareness Program. By the end of the program’s first semester, spring 2016, she had presented to more than 400 elementary students.

“We see these kids in the community now,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “They call me the dog lady. No one can remember my name. They can remember Jae’s name. They know Jae. They’ll say, ‘I know you, and I’m not supposed to talk to you.’ And the parents will say, ‘Sarah came home and told us all about your program. Now I know ‘don’t talk to the dog.’’ We started seeing results in the community, and that was super cool.”

A $400 grant from the Kiwanis Club allowed the Service Dog Awareness Program to reach 995 kindergarten to fifth-grade students and faculty the next year.

Her recent grant from the Jessie duPont Fund will be used to purchase t-shirts for students and teachers. The shirts will list the three objectives Haynes-Lawrence teaches students.

“We thought, well, if we got a larger grant and had t-shirts, more people would see these children out in the community, read their t-shirts, read the teachers’ t-shirts,” Haynes-Lawrence said.

Haynes-Lawrence is aiming to expand her Service Dog Awareness Program even further.

“Right now, I’m writing a $30,000 [grant] to try to broaden to the neighboring county so we can keep going out and getting larger,” Haynes-Lawrence said.

Local Learning

For individuals in other communities, including Bowling Green, she suggested visiting the websites of the Indiana Canine Assistant Network and Assistance Dogs International to learn more about service dogs. The Indiana Canine Assistant Network pairs handlers with service dogs. Assistance Dogs International is an accreditation program.

“Just like Western has to be certified to show that we’re a good school and that we’re actually teaching people, that’s what Assistance Dogs International does for nonprofit service dog organizations,” Haynes-Lawrence said.

She emphasized that service dog knowledge is an area of expertise.

“What I wouldn’t do is get information from a general dog trainer,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “PetSmart teaches your dog to pee outside and sit, but they don’t know anything about service dogs.”

Haynes-Lawrence expressed a growing need for service dog awareness.

“There’s a new law going into effect where our service members can get a dog for [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Haynes-Lawrence said. “When you have a service dog with PTSD, you really need to leave that handler and that dog alone.”

She cited both handler and child safety as concerns

“Some of these other dogs, I don’t know how they’re trained,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “I don’t know if it’s a fake service dog. There’s a lot of fake service dogs, so kids get bit. Keeping these kids safe is so important, but so is keeping the person with the disability safe, too.”

Other Projects

Haynes-Lawrence’s educational efforts extend beyond her Service Dog Awareness Program. She received a Faculty-Undergraduate Student Engagement grant in 2015 to write a children’s book about MS.

“This disease is awful, and it’s challenging for anyone who has it,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “But it’s worse on your children because your children are watching you decline, and nobody wants that to happen. I was diagnosed when my daughter was four.So she went through that two year process with us of Momma getting diagnosed and having all these tests. I had always thought I should write something about this to help other families who have MS and help explain the disease to their children.”

The book, “A Conversation About Monkey Snot,” is published and distributed by the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.

“We had a problem,” Haynes-Lawrence said. “We needed to help parents educate their young children about what MS is and what MS isn’t, and so we did it. We solved that problem. I wrote [the book]. [One of my students, Niah Soult] illustrated it, and my daughter Sami helped to write it. It follows a mom and a little girl named Sam through the diagnostic process. ‘What does this mean? Is Mommy gonna die?’ All of those types of things.”

Haynes-Lawrence is currently working on a second book. “Along Came Jae: a Conversation About Service Dogs for People with MS”addresses the challenges of incorporating a service dog into a family.

“It’s really hard when you’ve got a child and you have that child saying, ‘I’m embarrassed when you use your cane. I’m embarrassed when you use your wheelchair. I’m embarrassed when you use your service dog,’” Haynes-Lawrence said. “[The book is] about us helping Sam through that process of using those modalities and helping her feel as normal as possible.”

The book will be completed in December 2018. In the meantime, Haynes-Lawrence will continue presenting her Service Dog Awareness Program to students.

News reporter Olivia Eiler can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]. Follow Olivia on Twitter at @oliviaeiler16.