Quality of Life Grantee Spotlight: Freedom Service Dogs of America

From turning on lights and opening doors to putting a can in the recycling bin, service dogs perform various tasks that improve the well-being, security and independence of their human partners.

FDA photo

One of the nation’s leading service dog organizations is Freedom Service Dogs of America (FSD), which started in 1987 as a two-person operation in Michael and PJ Roche’s Denver home.

“After Michael sustained a spinal cord injury in a car accident, PJ trained a service dog to help him build his independence, and soon they became pioneers in the field,” says Lea Wilson, FSD’s grants and foundation relations manager. “Since our founding 37 years ago, FSD has graduated more than 550 client-dog teams nationwide at no cost to the clients.”

In 2022, FSD received its most recent and largest Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grant for $25,000. The funds supported several puppy program trainers and the Colorado Correctional Industries' Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program fees for training 84 puppies.

“It takes about two years for our dogs, mostly labs and golden retrievers, to become fully trained. Dogs younger than two have too much energy,” says Wilson. “Our partnership with the correctional system is an important part of the process.”

At eight weeks old, the puppies are brought to one of two Denver-area correctional facilities where 18 inmates have been trained to teach the dogs house skills, like walking on a leash and going to the bathroom outside. The puppies remain with the inmates for two months and then spend the next year with one of FSD’s “puppy-raiser” volunteers in six states.

“It is hard to find volunteers to take the puppies if they are not house trained. We started the inmate program in 2009, and it has been very successful,” says Wilson. “It is a wonderful socialization training opportunity for the puppies and provides huge emotional and psychological benefits for the inmates.”

Studies find that dog training reduces anxiety and depression and increases empathy and compassion while contributing to a sense of purpose and responsibility. It also builds transferable employment skills after an inmate’s release.

“The U.S. has a huge pet economy, from pet shops to doggy daycares. This program is a powerful tool for skill development and may lower recidivism rates,” says Wilson.

FSD graduates roughly 30 dogs per year. Thanks to the grant’s support, five individuals with a spinal cord injury received a custom-trained service dog free of charge.

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“We have a 2–3-year waitlist. Dogs for people with a spinal cord injury typically need to be larger, male dogs to help with weight-bearing duties. It is important to find the right match, which can take time,” says Wilson.

FSD also offers a Lifetime Support Program (LTS) for 8-10 years after a dog is placed to ensure certifications remain current and provide additional in-home, one-on-one training as needed. When the service dog nears retirement, FSD starts looking for a successor dog.

“We currently have 15 clients with spinal cord injuries in the LTS program, which also impacts an estimated 135 caregivers,” says Wilson. “In our latest survey results, 100% of individuals living with spinal cord injuries experienced an increased quality of life within one year of acquiring a service dog. These clients also reported increased social and emotional functioning.”

Since 2004, FSD has received a total of $56,000 in Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grant support.

“It’s rare that you have a foundation willing to provide funding for 20 years; that’s a deep connection,” says Wilson. “The Reeve Foundation is very well known and respected. This grant gives us a powerful seal of approval and the credibility to secure funding from other sources. We are enormously grateful for the support.”

Learn more about our Quality of Life Grants program here

About the Author - Reeve Staff

This blog was written by the Reeve Foundation for educational purposes. For more information please reach out to information@christopherreeve.org

Reeve Staff

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $10,000,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.