Alda Owen got a new lease on life—or should we say leash?— at age 60. It came in the form of an intelligent border collie puppy that she named Sweet Baby Jo, a bundle of boundless energy that found its way into Alda’s life thanks to a connection made possible by PHARM Dog USA.

Life had dealt Alda a tough hand, as she had been legally blind since the age of 10, and survived a bout with cancer just before she brought 9-week-old Sweet Baby Jo into her life. “I was dealing not only with disease, but depression,” Alda admits. “Jo was the first puppy I ever had, and she gave me a reason to get up in morning, put my britches on, and go to work.”

Alda had learned to work with her lack of vision, devoting much of her life to farming alongside her husband, Rick, on their Maysville, Mo., cattle operation. The weakness brought on by cancer treatments, however, put further limits to what she could do—and Rick, concerned about her health and safety working among the cattle, questioned whether she should be out on the land, at all.

But that all changed in 2012, when Alda’s daughter, Kate, reached out to PHARM Dog USA. Kate had heard about its mission as a resource to help farmers who are dealing with a disability.

Healing touch. Fast-forward to today, and Alda teams up with Sweet Baby Jo to do just about any chore on the farm. Before Alda even reaches a feed trough, Jo serves as a guardian angel, moving the heifers back a safe distance. “She came along at just the right time,” says Alda, taking a minute to sit with Sweet Baby Jo. “She was just what I needed.”

Jo keeps heifers back a safe distance from Alda.

PHARM Dog founder Jackie Allenbrand says the term is an acronym for Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri. It’s also a play on words for the fact that her dogs “heal as well as heel.” The organization trains and places cattle dogs and service dogs with farmers who have disabilities—not just in Missouri, although the organization is headquartered in Albany, Mo. Jackie established PHARM Dog USA in 2005, becoming an official 501(c)3 non-profit in 2012.

“The PHARM Dog project was created to assist farmers who have a disability or disease, but want to stay active and independent,” she says. “If service dogs can help persons with disabilities in a general way, I wanted to train dogs to assist with daily chores for farmers.” And that’s exactly what the program does, using a network of trainers in the Midwest. Eligible recipients include any farmer with a physical, cognitive, or illness-related disability.

PHARM Dog USA typically uses border collies for herding work, and labradors saved from shelters for service work. Jackie points out that these are not service dogs in the true sense of the word. That requires specific training, testing, and certification. “Our dogs have service skills,” she says. “We call them four-legged farm hands, because that’s really what we focus on in our training process.”

Skilled labor. Those skills can be invaluable for a health-challenged farmer working in an isolated rural setting. One skill taught to service oriented dogs, for example, is bracing. If a farmer were to fall and need help getting up, the dog is trained to position itself, strong and steady, to assist the farmer in getting back to their feet. In some cases, dogs can be fitted with a harness that provides a handle for additional grip, allowing the dog to help the farmer who may have suffered a dizzy spell or a fall.

Although Sweet Baby Jo was brought into the program as a puppy, most dogs are introduced to their farmer as an adult animal after considerable training. In Sweet Baby Jo’s case, Alda lived close enough to a PHARM Dog trainer that she could work with the pup over the next year to handle basic commands and perform simple exposure-training exercises with the dogs, such as riding in the farm’s utility vehicle.

Jackie Allenbrand founded PHARM Dog USA as an alternative for farmers who have a disability or disease, but who want to stay active and independent with assistance from a four-legged farmhand.

Border collies learn commands such as “away” and “by,” which moves the dogs to the right or left of the herd or flock. Labradors may be taught to retrieve tools or dropped gloves, and some dogs can even be taught to open gates.

Pay it forward. The PHARM Dog USA program, on the web at pharmdog.org, funds itself with volunteer help, donations, and small grants. “The farmer doesn’t have to pay for the dog, but we do ask that once a dog has been placed with them, that they make a donation,” Jackie says. “We ask that they pay it forward.”

For Alda Owen, the payback from the program cannot be measured in dollars. “Sweet Baby Jo and PHARM Dog USA are why I’m farming today,” Alda says. “Jo and I do it as a team.”

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