Program Trains Dogs To Help Disabled Missouri Farmers

May 6, 2015

Alda Owen heads out to work the family with her dog, Sweet Baby Jo, at her side.
Credit Ben Nuelle / for KCUR

Alda Owen of Fairport, Missouri is legally blind, and sees only outlines of images with the details blurred out. But still, she drives herself and her border collie, Sweet Baby Jo, a short way up the road to work cattle.

When she was just 10-years-old, doctors diagnosed Owen with histoplasmosis. She got the disease and went blind after collecting chicken eggs. It is caused by breathing in spores of a fungus found in bird droppings.  

To add to the struggle of being blind, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer in 2008.

“My daughter said, ‘Mom, enough is enough. I have a girlfriend who has connections. There are programs out there,'” says Owen.

Everything changed for Owen in 2012. She received a specially trained border collie named Sweet Baby Jofrom the group PHARM Dog USA.

Joe is a herding dog and helps Owen with livestock. For instance, noticing a black cow sitting under a shade tree.

Jackie Allenbrand started PHARM Dog in 2005 from an acronym she saw on a sign entering a friend’s farm, which read “The Pharm.” She used the play on words to develop Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri.

Allenbrand says she trains two types of dogs — herding dogs like Sweet Baby Joe and service dogs, trained to retrieve dropped tools, open gates and carry buckets.

“We try to use dogs from rescues or shelters. You’re helping a dog and you’re helping a person,” says Allenbrand. For the herding dogs, dog trainers often donate pups.

Allenbrand says they try to make training simple for the farmers since most of them cannot spend much time away from the farm. Instead, the trainers go to the farm.

“We get the dogs used to the livestock, their facility, their home, and they can ask questions,” says Allenbrand.

Janet Padley is with the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City. She says the program can help the farmers gain independence.

“I think that that is remarkable that they are utilizing dogs in that way to help the farmers,” says Padley. “Again, I think it just allows for the farmers not to need additional help.”

Owen says she felt like a nuisance to her family before getting the specially trained dog.

“I was tired, discouraged, and in the way,” says Owen.

But she says things are different now.

“My days are just wonderful. No matter how hard, no matter how deep the snow is, or how hot or cold, it’s different. I feel like getting up because I know can accomplish it.”

Disabled farmers from across the country have called Allenbrand asking about available dogs. PHARM Dog has operated on a shoestring budget but Allenbrand wants to expand it nationwide.