One November afternoon, a woman parks in a lot on Michigan State’s campus and steps out into the sunshine.
It’s cold. But Amy Shelle, 45, plans to work outside today, so she’s bundled up. Before she shuts her car door, she reaches back for a bag of dog treats. They are the “good brand,” she says.
Shelle said she thought about adopting a dog that looked intimidating. She said she wanted one who could walk alongside her on the sidewalk and make a person think twice about approaching her. She visited a dog breeder, selected a boxer puppy and named her Greta. She intended for Greta to be trained as a service animal.
“I really wanted a dog that had a look to her that said, ‘Don’t mess with me,’” Shelle said. “The idea ... was she would get me out of my comfort zone … and (give) me a purpose to live.”
When her living circumstances changed, Shelle said she found herself unable to keep Greta. She made sure to find Greta a new home.
But her degrees in animal science and social work, combined with multiple years of researching animal behavior, made her want to do something more, especially after she saw how psychiatric service dogs can comfort their human handlers. In 2016, Shelle worked with service dogs at a nonprofit in Brighton, Michigan, where she trained them to assist veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said she wanted to create a group to help civilians — such as survivors of domestic violence, rape or sexual assault — train their own service dogs. Once trained, the dogs can assist humans with a variety of daily tasks that make lives easier, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Shelle didn’t forget the little boxer puppy that started it all. She took Greta’s name and used it as an acronym for her initiative. It became Dogs for GRETA — Dogs for “Gaining Resilience and Empowerment through Teamwork and Assurance.”
Through Dogs for GRETA, Shelle helps women train service dogs that are tailored to their needs. She said it lets her earn a little bit of extra money, but she doesn’t charge much. She realizes not everyone can afford the cost.
“Part of the reason why I charge so little for training dogs is because I understand that,” Shelle says. “I’ve been there, I’ve been homeless for a time. I get how this stuff goes, and I want to make it available to people.”
Ollie, a bouncy, one-year-old white English Labrador, doesn’t seem to like stairs.
This isn’t the first time Ollie has had a reaction to stairs. Louise Harder, his owner and one of Amy’s clients, coaxes Ollie to climb them. It’s important he learns to ascend and descend stairs without fear and without Harder helping him.
“Don’t hesitate,” Shelle tells Harder. “Just go.”
Up again, down again — and twice more. Exercises with stairs are repeated until Ollie is comfortable on them. When they finish, Harder is ecstatic. Shelle is smiling.
“Dogs are really good at picking up on how we’re feeling,” Shelle says. “Since this has been a repeat situation of him hesitating, typically the human will also have that hesitation because they know there’s going to be a potential problem.”
They agree that Ollie’s encounters with stairs are vastly improving.
“It’s something that humans really don’t think about. We just step down and step up,” said Jessica Crane, a Michigan State freshman who has shadowed Shelle’s work since October 2019.
A week later, Shelle is with Harder for an in-home training session. Ollie is learning to turn the house lights on and off for Harder, open doors for her and conduct perimeter checks. A little bit of peanut butter applied to a handheld model of a light switch lets Harder show Ollie how to turn a light on and off before trying it on the real thing.
“They have to love working,” Harder says. She points to a rope tied to a door knob, and Ollie tugs at it. The door pops open. “He loves it. And you can just see it on his face.”
Another of Shelle’s clients, Karen McClure, attends the training at Harder’s house. McClure’s dog, Finn, is Ollie’s younger half-brother. Finn loves working as a service dog, too. McClure describes how she can recognize Finn’s disappointment when he can’t go somewhere with her.
“Whenever we have to go out or go to a doctor’s appointment — and we can’t bring him because there’s one doctor who doesn’t let him — he’ll get so sad,” McClure says. “He’ll bring his leash over to the door and he’ll be like, ‘Am I going with you guys? Am I going?’”
Then it’s out to Harder’s backyard. For one exercise, Shelle has the two women approach each other, dogs at their sides, and pause to greet each other.
“The goal is that the dogs can be in the presence of each other and not be interested in each other, but focus on you,” Shelle tells them.
Shelle stands back and observes as they repeat the process. Each time, the women get closer to each other. It takes some time, but at the end of the exercise, Ollie and Finn are attentive to their humans, not to each other.
When training in the backyard is finished, Harder and McClure let Ollie and Finn out of their leashes and harnesses. Harder brings out a tennis ball and sends it flying. Shelle observes and mentions it’s important to understand service dogs, like humans, need breaks from their work.
Service animals. Therapy dogs. Emotional support animals, or ESAs — there are differences between the three. Shelle wants to educate people on what those are.
For instance, therapy dogs must be certified. That’s not a requirement for service animals. However, psychiatric service dogs may receive more rigorous, extensive training than ESAs.
There are risks attached to choosing, adopting and training a dog to become a service animal — it’s a pricey endeavor. Full investment into the selection, temperament testing, training and care costs of a service dog can reach up to $50,000.
Even then, it takes about two years to know for certain if a dog has what it takes to be a psychiatric service animal. Shelle talks about how some canines have a natural inclination to be more aggressive, due to either their specific breed or the environment they grew up in as a puppy. Other dogs have a tendency to be timid or get startled more easily. Detection of unhealthy levels of aggression or fear in a dog can be devastating to a person set on training the dog, she said.
“Washing out,” or the realization a dog won’t work as a service animal, can deal a significant blow. And to McClure and Harder, that possibility is terrifying.
“I honestly don’t know what I would do with Finn,” McClure said. “I would definitely want to keep him, but I don’t know if I’d be able to keep him if I had to get a new dog.”
A carefully-constructed attachment between a human handler and their dog can be lost if the dog washes out.
“When it doesn’t work out, then you’re back to square one,” McClure said.
The idea of Ollie washing out is always on the back of Harder’s mind. Sometimes, training might not always be successful as Harder and Shelle hope, and there are days when Ollie can’t complete a task on the first try. But the support he gives her is well worth the time and effort. If Harder is alone in her house at night, Ollie — and Calvin, her other non-service dog — put her at ease.
“Smaller things that other people wouldn’t even pick up on, these dogs do pick up on and help,” Harder said. “A dog washing out, it happens. There’s so many ways it can happen because they’re put to such a high standard. It’s terrifying. ... Based on how he’s doing so far, I’m fairly hopeful and I think the fear of him washing out has decreased.”
The potential for her clients’ dogs to wash out of training is a heavy weight on Shelle’s mind. She wants her clients to continue having that source of comfort, especially if they’ve grown close. But at the end of the day, she has to remind herself that dogs are freethinking creatures.
“These are sentient beings,” Shelle says. “They have desires, they have drives, they have instincts and we have to respect that, too.”
It is a few weeks shy of Christmas when Shelle allows us into her home. Coal, Shelle’s own service dog who is a large American Labrador, excitedly squirms.
Shelle talks of her daughter, her master’s degree in social work, her previous research on animal behavior and the other dogs she has trained. It is a deeply personal conversation, one that she isn’t required to share with anyone.
Shelle recalls a trip to the hospital for a medical emergency, where she thought she would be saying her last goodbyes. She only wanted to talk to her daughter, who was seven at the time.
“And that was the first time, looking in her eyes ... that I saw I mattered to someone,” Shelle says.
She says she is not a religious person by any means. But she made a pact with a higher power after that day. If whatever is up there got her through, she would refocus her life.
“I don’t want to be here, to be absolutely blunt. I’m exhausted,” Shelle says. “That’s why when I say the service dogs give me a purpose, I mean that.”
Shelle sits on her couch, so Coal jumps up and settles onto her lap, protective. Readers should know that a rape in 2008 does not define Amy Shelle. But training dogs to aid other survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape does.
“To me, it’s not about making money. … My clients give me a reason to be here. A purpose,” Amy says. “It fills my soul.”