In search of greener pastures, quite literally speaking, Carol Borden, founder and CEO of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc., and her husband, relocated from Texas to Levy County, FL. The price was right and the grass, according to Borden, has a higher mineral content for the horses they raise. What started as a move for practical reasons ended up being the perfect location for Borden to start and grow her incredible non-profit. Borden shared the story behind Guardian Angels Medical Services Dogs and how, with the help of man’s best friend, she’s providing those with disabilities or limitations the ability to regain independence and take control of their lives.
“I’ve worked with dogs all my life,” Borden said. “However, when we moved the horse farm from Texas to Williston, our plan was never to start a service dog business. I started doing some dog training on the side and that eventually led to some classes for the public. One day, I had a quadriplegic come to me. He had one bad tackle in high school and, after being confined to a wheelchair for a long time, he wanted to live independently. Simple things were humiliating and it was ruining his self-esteem. He had a companion dog, unfortunately it was very unruly. My job was to get it under control, but I knew I could do much more than that. When I was done training the dog, my client regained his freedom. The dog could do everything for him. My client was no longer confined to his home. He could go to the mall and do things that most of us take for granted. This was a real pivotal moment for me.”
Borden started doing research on the industry. She discovered there were very few service dog facilities across the country. That’s when she made the decision to start her own. She wrote a business plan, secured the necessary space, developed a curriculum and started training the dogs, she already had, to do this type of work. In May of 2010, Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs was officially born. As Borden shared, it didn’t take long for the word to get out.
“When people are in dire need for a service animal to support their lives, they find out about you pretty quickly,” she said. “We were busy from the start. Today, we have 34 people working for us and teams in 21 different states. We pair about 50 dogs per year. All of our trainers, regardless of skill level, are required to go through a high level training curriculum. In fact, it’s the first and only accredited and paid Service Dog Training apprenticeship program in the state of Florida and one that’s also approved by the Department of Veteran Affairs.”
As one of the largest non-profit service dog organizations in the country, Guardian Angels receives its funding through the generous donations of individuals and corporate sponsors. As Borden explained, a lot more goes into raising, training and pairing a service dog than most people think.
“These are highly skilled dogs, capable of learning and accurately performing complex tasks,” she said. “These dogs can predict seizures, pick stuff up, turn on lights, guide someone in a wheelchair through a busy area and alert their owners of danger. The training is in depth and usually costs around $25,000 from start to finish. That includes the cost of training the dog, expenses for the individual to travel to Williston and two weeks of working one on one with trainers to learn about how to use their dog, various laws and how to care for their dog.”
“Our dogs give people a new normal. We see people that haven’t been out of their homes in 25 years or people that haven’t left their bedroom in six months. Some have had multiple suicide attempts. Once paired with a service dog, these folks regain some independence and feel comfortable leaving the house. We help to safely integrate them back into society.”
After the high school shooting in Parkland, FL, Borden was invited to be on a mental health panel. Since then, they’ve paired impacted kids with service dogs. She was also invited to Paradise, CA, an area completely devastated by an unprecedented wildfire, to help with people dealing with the shock of seeing their friends, family and neighbors burned alive.
Borden shared some of the success stories and positive impacts of service dog pairings. “We had a dog that saved 98 people,” she said. “The dog started alerting while its owner was in class. Even though everything seemed fine, she knew better than to ignore her dog. She left the classroom to notify a school officer. Turns out a generator was malfunctioning and toxic fumes were spilling into the classroom. They evacuated the room and, because of that service dog going above and beyond the call of duty, everyone survived.”
“We had a veteran tell the story of when he found out he was approved for a service dog. At the time, he admitted that he was kind of ‘meh’ about the whole thing, but that he was still committed to making the trip to Williston to meet his dog. However, he also admitted that he had a secret plan. Because he didn’t think the dog was going to do anything for him, he was planning on committing suicide before returning home. He met the dog, went back to his hotel room and, overnight, his life totally changed. The next day he had a completely different outlook on things. Thanks to his service dog, his kids still have their father and his wife still has her husband. These are just two of the hundreds of success stories and the reason we love and feel so strongly about what we do.”
Borden shared that what she enjoys most about her organization is: Seeing the reaction of her dogs when they meet their recipient for the first time, how rapidly the positive changes in the recipients take place and hearing from recipients later on down the line after they’ve had time to adjust and take stock in their new lives. Many recipients have even told Borden they would not be walking this earth if it wasn’t for their Guardian Angel service dog.
Looking ahead, there are many exciting things happening for Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs. On a local level, they’re building a new headquarters in Williston on a 68 acre plot. On a national level, they’re building a second state-of-the-art campus on 102 acres just outside of Pittsburgh, PA.
“Pennsylvania is just one of the states where we’ve grown and been embraced,” Borden said. “A state senator and the governor asked us to bring our apprenticeship program there. We’re bringing our program to a unique demographic: incarcerated veterans. It’s a way to teach these guys the program and how to be trainers, so once they’re released from prison, they’ll have a pathway to a job and a new life. We’re waiting on the final approvals, but that’s part of the plan for our second location.”
Borden shared some excellent advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who might be on the fence about starting their own business. “If you only dream about it and not act on it, you’ll just be a dreamer,” she said. “Decide what is important to you. You’ll research it and you might fail, but a true leader never gives up. Figure out how to do it better the next time around. Use failures and mishaps as learning experiences. Don’t let them be in vain. If you truly believe you can do something, the only thing stopping you is you. If you were on top of a skyscraper and there was a thin rod extending out with a dollar bill on it, you probably wouldn’t climb out after it. However, if your baby was out there dangling from the rod, you wouldn’t think twice about going out there. You need the same focus when it comes to your business. You need to be willing to do anything to make it succeed.”