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posted September 22nd, 2014 by
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by Lauren Cavagnolo

A roomful of jovial faces and a strong sense of camaraderie among both people and dogs fill the classroom at K9 Manners & More on a Saturday afternoon.

Adults with special needs are assertively leading dogs around the room, commanding them to sit and generously rewarding them with both treats and smiles.

Though it has only been about a year and a  half since Co-directors Mindy Stevenson and Mary Green started the Champs Foundation (in November of 2012), it has already made quite an impact on so many lives.

The program for teens and adults with intellectual disabilities pairs each with a volunteer coach and trained dog, so the participants can learn how to train dogs themselves. Not only do the participants learn new skills associated with dog training, but the classes help with life skills and boost confidence, potentially helping its participants find jobs.

Stevenson’s two sons with special needs, Billy and Danny, were her inspiration for the first-of-its-kind program. After running a therapeutic horseback riding center for 18 years, Stevenson started working with dogs.

At one point, Stevenson had as many as 75 students riding horses weekly, but her youngest son Danny’s life-threatening seizures were not compatible with the program. Stevenson found that working with dogs allowed her to have constant supervision of her son since he could work alongside her.

“Dogs are so much easier to work with, and so many more children could benefit,” Stevenson says. “There’s not a lot of access to the therapeutic programs with horses and not all the kids like the big horses. It was just such an easy transition, why in the world had nobody thought of it before?

“Dogs have proven to be a great comfort and support to people everywhere and in all situations, so the transition to dogs was an easy one to pursue.”

Stevenson had been to several classes at K9 Manners & More through the years. When she approached Owners Mary Green and Kim Sykes about the possibility of beginning the Champs program, they were on board and ready to develop the program.

Green serves as the head instructor for the program and is “absolutely perfect for the job,” Stevenson says. “What a blessing that has been, and so here we are today with a bright future for Champs!”

No barriers

One of the biggest surprises to everyone involved in the program has been how quickly the participants have improved their communication skills.

“I just can’t stress enough how the communication skills have come along,” Green says. “Some of these kids were super, super quiet. The dogs couldn’t even hear when they would give a command or call the dog to come to them. My goodness, now they are all very vocal and very bold.”

However, Green says that strong verbal skills are not necessary to participate in the program because hand signals and other forms of communication are used with the dogs.

“In this environment with support and positive reinforcement and teamwork, they don’t have a disability; this is just as training would be with anybody else,” Green says. “That to me is the greatest joy of it; there are no barriers to being able to handle a dog to participate.”

Linda Evans says she is always looking for activities for her 24-year-old son Nick, a Champs Foundation participant. Evans was initially concerned about Nick’s ability to take part in the class because of his limited verbal skills.

“Once Nick learned the signs and increased his confidence level, he began to speak up, including the verbal command with the sign. When the sessions end, Nick impatiently waits for the next session to begin,” Evans says.

“He has gotten to know the dogs and their owners. These are wonderful, generous people. They donate part of their Saturday to provide this experience for my son and others with special needs.”

Fran Bohan’s 23-year-old son Evan also attends Champs classes, though at first he was hesitant to try it.

“After finding out a couple of friends of his were going to be there as well, he decided to give it a try. From day one, he has loved it,” Bohan says.

Like Nick, Bohan says Evan has gained confidence since joining the Champs Foundation.

“He’s become comfortable with giving the commands and being assertive with the dogs,” Bohan

says. “For a while, he tended to work with one dog in particular, but has since begun changing it up.

“I can’t say enough about the Champs program. You can see it on the faces of these class members every week—the smiles and love for those dogs. The dedication of those running the class and the dog owners is amazing, and we are very appreciative.”

The Champs give more to me

Champs volunteer Cathi Morris, who has previously worked with Special Olympics Oklahoma, began training her dog at K9 Manners & More a few years ago and says the program has allowed her to put her passions to good use through teaching and continuing work with her dog.

“When Champs classes finally began I’m not sure any of us really knew what to expect,” Morris says. “But the thought of being a part of something new and unique was exciting.” 

Fellow volunteer Mary Buck recalls being asked to participate along with her dog Nike and says she all but screamed with excitement. She has been a part of the program since the beginning.

“I never want to miss my Champs time, ever,” Buck says. “I leave our training sessions and head home with a smile on my face and the best feeling in the world. I have seen so many of these kids’ confidence increase and verbal skills increase as well.”

After hearing amazing things about the program, Laurie Lambert began to volunteer her time as a coach last fall.

“I love watching the faces of the Champs as they work the dogs and feel proud of their accomplishments,” Lambert says. “This hour-long session is one of the highlights of my week. The Champs give more to me than I give to them.”

Just the beginning

Up until now, the program has been invitation only but it was opened to the public at the end of February. A session costs $50 and runs for six weeks with classes held weekly.

Stevenson and Green are also working on developing a detailed curriculum for the program with the intent of expanding to other facilities.

“The kids have exceeded any initial expectations that   we had, and it keeps us on our toes thinking of new and greater things for them to accomplish,” Green says.

The pair hopes to raise funds to be able to offer scholar-ships to the program.

“This is just the beginning,” Stevenson adds. “It’s going to be amazing.”


For more information or to make a donation, visit

Interested in enrolling or volunteering? Email Champs at [email protected] or

Mindy Stevenson at [email protected]