Sheila O’Brien M.Ed., Director of External Relations
Sheila began her career in the assistance dog industry in 1978. With a special education background and the ability to communicate by sign language, she left the classroom to train hearing dogs for individuals who were deaf and hearing impaired as the hearing dog movement was in its infancy. Early on, she created a canine test to access the potential of shelter dogs for hearing dog work that is still used by many in the industry today.
In 1986, Sheila became a Charter Member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and served four terms on the ADI Board of Directors as its first vice president. She presently is serving a fifth term on the International Board and Chairs the ADI Board of Directors for the North American Region. She serves on numerous committees and introduced many new concepts into the assistance dog Industry including a voluntary “Program of Excellence” that promoted high standards for training that later became the basis for the ADI accreditation standards.
In 1998, Sheila became an advocate for prison puppy programs, chaired the committee that created the ADI standards and helped to open prison puppy programs in New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Europe as well as all over the USA.
In 1995, at the request of the People to People Program, Sheila lead a delegation of 13 individuals and assistance dogs; including two guide dogs, two service dogs, and a hearing dog, to South Africa to further introduce the concept of how assistance dogs help people who are disabled. This trip inspired her to create an ADI Mentoring Program to help others who were starting in the assistance dog industry.
Anticipating the impact that the wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan would have on the demographics of the disabled population in the USA, Sheila developed a service dog training program for those newly wounded and placed the first service dog in the USA with a veteran who was injured in Afghanistan in 2005. Noticing that the severely wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were using the tasks that their dogs were trained to do to mitigate their physical disabilities to help with their PTSD, she convened a committee to develop training for and the study of the placement of ten service dogs for PTSD in 2007. This developed into the Trauma Alert Dog Program (TAD) that continues today.
In 2015, Sheila chaired the ADI committee that developed “Standards for the Placement of Service Dogs with those with Military Related PTSD”. These standards were ratified by the ADI International membership on January 16, 2018 and became the first standards in the world to address the placement of service dogs that mitigate PTSD and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
Presently, Sheila is working with the airlines as well as Senators and Congressmen to make the airlines accessible for all those who travel with service dogs. She has traveled worldwide to help develop service dog programs and has acted as a mentor for newly formed organizations.
Sheila is the Director of External Relations for America’s VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation in New York and will celebrate her 42nd year of working in the Assistance Dog Field in October 2020.