By: Isabella Bejar, Jessica Jones, and Jack Vertis
Imagine a place with small dogs, big dogs, dogs in costume, loud dogs, quiet dogs, and every dog breed you could think of. This is the scene every year for The Mighty Texas Dog Walk, a service event that benefits Service Dogs, Inc.
A sea of dogs flooded the parking lot of the Austin American Statesman on Saturday March 5 for the event. Dogs and owners alike enjoyed a scenic walk near Lady Bird Lake that was coupled with vendors handing out tons of free samples of dog food and treats along the way.
The theme of the walk this year was Texas pride. Everywhere the eye could see, there was a dog in a cowboy hat or wearing Willie Nelson braids. A few other dogs were more unique in their appearance, including a poodle that had temporary tattoos on her skin and a funky punk rock hair-do.
Although costumed dogs adds to the fun, the true purpose of the walk is the large amount of proceeds the event raises for Service Dogs, Inc. This organization trains dogs, many of which come from shelters, to become service dogs for free and they gain the majority of their funds to do this task through the walk.
Sheri Soltes, the founder of Service Dogs, Inc., has watched the Mighty Texas Dog Walk grow for the past 17 years it’s been held. Soltes was trial lawyer for eight years after graduating from UT’s Law School and Plan II Program before she realized she wanted to do something “more fulfilling.”
“I read a magazine article one day about dogs who help people with disabilities and it mentioned that some of the groups got dogs from shelters,” Soltes said. “That really appealed to me and here we are, 28 years later after the founding of Service Dogs, Inc.”
Most event participants were Austin residents bringing their family dogs out for a good cause, but there were a handful of service dogs and their owners present as well. At the information tent for Service Dogs, Inc., Morgan Pewitt sits with her dog “Snowflake.” At first, it was confusing as to why she would not provide the dog’s real name.
“When people ask you what your dog’s name is, you can’t not give an answer. That’s weird, so I usually tell people Snowflake or even Winter sometimes,” Pewitt said. “Her actual name is Denali, but she is supposed to react to her name when she’s working so if people ask, I give them her fake name.”
Pewitt is not blind, deaf, or any of the typical disabilities that come to mind for most people when they think of service dogs. She has an issue with her balance when she walks and Denali is there to provide stability. Sheila English and her service dog, Noelle, were also sitting at the Service Dogs, Inc. table. English, like Pewitt, has balance issues and becomes more mobile by having Noelle around.
“I’m a high school special education teacher in Georgetown so my students get to see Noelle every day and she provides a bit of therapy for them too,” English said. “It also helps her to not be distracted wherever we go, because she walks through passing periods at the high school with me.”
The Mighty Texas Dog Walk allows for a large sum of funds to be raised for individuals like Pewitt and English each year. Many dogs would still be in shelters without this cause. This cause allows these dogs to be trained in service and truly make an impact on a disabled person’s life.
“We have had a couple dogs who ended up saving their owner’s life because they knew what to do without their owner telling them to,” Soltes said. “We have creative, problem-solving dogs and we take pride in that.”
Learn more about Service Dogs, Inc on their website!