When local Maureen Maurer was just 39-years-old, she discovered a large tumor in her body and was told by medical experts that it may be ovarian cancer and that she might only have six months to live.
“The first thing I thought of when they told me that was I never did what I always wanted to, which was to train dogs to help people,” she said. “It really made me rethink what I was doing in my life.”
The tumor was benign, so after she recovered from surgery, she reset and pursued a skill to train dogs to help people with disabilities and other special needs. Maurer had been working at a Certified Public Accountant firm in Hawaii, which she sold before diving in to start the nonprofit Assistance Dogs of Hawaii.
Her first step was to go back to school, earning her master’s degree in canine studies. Assistance Dogs of Hawaii started in 2000, but Maurer and her husband, Will, who both run the program, soon learned that there was a demand for a similar program in the Pacific Northwest, where she was raised.
“Over the years we were getting more and more requests for dogs here in the Northwest,” she said. “We started placing dogs on a case-by-case basis in 2010. Then we started a puppy-raising program here that same year in Seattle. As the demand for assistance dogs grew, we really saw a need for establishing a campus here.”
She’s originally from Seattle but said she spent a lot of time on Bainbridge Island growing up. After college, she moved to Hawaii for about 30 years before moving back recently to open Assistance Dogs Northwest. The Maurers now split their time between Maui and Bainbridge.
The Maurers bought the Bainbridge property on Miller Road in 2018, but remodeling wasn’t finished until the end of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic affected their opening, but ADN was still able to train dogs and place them with people over the past year. The facility is now open but people need to make appointments, Maurer said. They are also going to have an open house later this year.
Maurer said assistance dogs is the umbrella term that describes all types of dogs that are trained to help someone. The types of dogs ADN specializes in are service dogs for children and adults with limited mobility; full-time hospital dogs at children’s hospitals, cancer units and assisted-living centers; and courthouse dogs that help children who are victims of crime through the legal process.
“The dogs help their partners not only with daily tasks like opening doors and picking up items, but they really give them their independence back,” Maurer said. “We’ve had people say the service dog makes their wheelchair disappear. It’s an icebreaker for them, and people will come up and talk to them. They mean everything to their partners.”
Maurer mentioned one woman who contracted bacterial meningitis and had to have all four limbs amputated. She was in the hospital for over two years before being partnered with an assistance dog. “He really helped her get her life back, and she went back to work full-time,” Maurer said.
ADN also provides a Community Outreach Program where the dogs visit places like veterans homes, homeless shelters and kids camps.
“We take our puppies in training and therapy dogs to visit thousands of people in the community each year,” Maurer said. “The main focus is on Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap area. We visit a lot of the assisted living centers here on the island as well as having programs for high school students with special needs.”
The dog breeds that ADN trains are all Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers or a combination of the two. “We find they have the ideal temperament for this type of work,” Maurer said.
The nonprofit provides all the dogs and lifetime follow-up support for free and relies on donations to operate. ADN has graduated over 25 teams in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, including several on Bainbridge. They currently have 12 puppies in training.
“One of the things that really motivates and inspires me is the untapped potential that dogs still have to help people in need, especially in the area of medical bio-detention,” Maurer said. “We’re just excited about discovering new ways that dogs can help people.”
Maurer wrote a book called Wonder Dogs — True Stories of Extraordinary Assistance Dogs, which was released July 13. She has been working on the book for about two years. It encaptures Maurer’s career path change to pursue her childhood dream along with all the special stories of dogs teaming up with people in need over the past 20 years.
“I have met so many amazing people and dogs over the past twenty years of training assistance dogs,” she said. “Their stories have inspired me so much. I’m just excited to share their stories with other people, especially for anyone who’s facing challenges.
“My hope is that readers would be inspired and encouraged by these stories. Just to face any challenges that they have with hope and courage; just for anyone feeling unfulfilled and searching for purpose will be inspired to remember their childhood dream and realize that it’s never too late to fulfill their purpose,” Maurer said, adding she has already heard from a production company interested in the movie rights.
Last week, Maurer held a book signing at Eagle Harbor Books. She brought assistance dogs Indy, Sadie and Samson with her.
Jenna Clark of Winslow and her black lab service dog Ranger, who were placed by ADN four years ago, attended.
“Ranger means everything to me,” Clark said. “He helps with turning on lights, opening doors, and he sleeps with me at night. People need to realize what a huge difference these dogs make in the life of someone with a disability. He has changed my life completely.”