After working as a civil trial lawyer in Houston for eight years, Sheri Soltes realized the job was too combative for her liking.
Soltes instead sought another line of work that she could put her heart into.
After reading a magazine article on people who help train service dogs, Soltes was inspired to found Service Dogs, Inc. (SDI) in 1988 in Houston.
Twenty-nine years later, the now-Dripping Springs-based non-profit has helped more than 800 people acquire a service dog to help them.
“Doing this gives my life purpose,” Soltes said. “I worked my life as a lawyer, but my heart wasn’t in it. This gives me reason to make the world a better place.”
Soltes founded Service Dogs, Inc. in 1988, using multiple staff members’ homes in Houston. She said the organization had people throughout the state help train service dogs on their properties.
Soon they all sought to consolidate the business under one roof. After searching for property, Soltes said their current location on Bell Springs Road was “by far the best choice.”
Soltes said SDI is a “counterpart to guide dog school.” Dogs are trained to help people who may be deaf or have mobility disabilities.
She said SDI is one of the few that obtains dogs from shelters, rather than breeding them. The screening process involves going to shelters across Texas and beyond, Soltes said.
She said the group looks for a certain temperament, rather than breed, of dog. SDI adopts younger adult dogs because they have longer attention spans and are more often healthy.
Selected dogs are taken to the Dripping Springs campus, where they’re taken through a six- to eight-month training process.
After that period, the dog is introduced to a client, who then goes through a weeklong initial training period with the dog, where SDI determines if they match.
SDI then allows the dog to go home with the client, where training continues for the next 13 months.
Over the course of a year, SDI continues with a one- to two-hour training session with the client at their home. Certain commands and traits, such as helping open a refrigerator door or alerting a person of a visitor, are taught to the dog during that time. In addition, dogs are also introduced into public settings.
Clients are also given a reality check when it comes to service dogs.
“It’s not a perfect dog like ‘Lassie’ in the movies. It will make mistakes sometimes,” Soltes said.
While there are no state requirements for service dogs, Soltes said SDI follows regulations set by the Assistance Dogs International-North America, which she said set the industry standard.
Trainers at SDI also use positive training methods and not physical punishment.
“If it makes a mistake, we try to determine how the trainer can do a better job of communicating with and motivating the dog,” Soltes said.
Clientele helped by SDI come from the Central Texas area and the Hill Country. While no one in Dripping Springs has applied for help with SDI, Soltes said she would “love to” assist anyone who may need it. She said the business does utilize local hotels for events and for clients who train in Dripping Springs.
“We also do presentations at local elementary schools to try to be as interactive as possible,” she said.
Community support has also increased over the last 29 years. On March 4, the Mighty Texas Dog Walk, the state’s biggest pet parade, will be held in Austin, which raises money for SDI. The funds help offset training, which costs approximately $45,000 per dog, and care for the lifetime of the animal.
“If you like dogs, you’ll see everything there,” Soltes said. “It’s a fun day for the dogs there.”
Mark your calendar
Bring out Fido for the Mighty Texas Dog Walk at 10 a.m. March 4 at 305 S. Congress in Austin.
Proceeds benefit Service Dogs, Inc.