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This Hero Teen Started a Charity to Get Service Dogs For Those in Need

“I’m going to raise enough money to get someone else a service dog!”


When Tabitha Belle, who has muscular dystrophy, got a service dog, her independence grew by leaps and bounds. But when she learned that many in need can’t afford them, she leapt into action and has raised over $300,000 to help pair dozens of people with the perfect service pup!

Power of Love

“Good boy,” Tabitha Belle smiled as a German Shepherd named Sunny took a treat from her outstretched hand.

“He’s never done that before — he’s wary of strangers,” the trainer marveled. “This is going to be a perfect match!”

Sunny was a service dog in training for Tabitha, a then-13-year-old with muscular dystrophy living in San Diego. Her muscles were so weak that she couldn’t take more than a few steps without a helping arm. Canes, crutches and walkers tripped her up, and using a wheelchair felt like giving up to the young teen.

Then one night, her parents, Jennifer and Paul, watched a news story about a local group that trained service dogs for partially paralyzed veterans. “Would you like to try something like that?” her mom asked.

“Could I?” Tabitha asked, and it was love at first sight — for both Tabitha and Sunny.

Freedom and Hope

Founder Tabitha Bell with Nox and Sonny
Founder Tabitha, here with her dogs, Nox and Sunny, helps those with disabilities like her lead a full lifeCourtesy of Subject

The training was long and hard, but once completed, Tabitha felt safe, stable on her feet and confident as she gripped Sunny’s harness handle. Best of all, she no longer had to wait for her mom or a friend to go shopping at the mall or travel from her classes to the cafeteria.

Impressed by the mobility Sunny afforded Tabitha, her orthopedist asked, “How much does a dog like that cost? I have several patients who might benefit.”

But when Tabitha told him anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, the doctor’s smile faded.

“None of my patients could afford it,” he said sadly.

That night, with Sunny curled up alongside her bed, Tabitha lay awake thanking her lucky stars. She’d been born in a Siberian orphanage with virtually no hope of being adopted given her medical issues.

But then Jennifer and Paul had come along and given her a loving, wonderful life — and her new best friend, Sunny. “What about all the other people who need their own Sunnys?” Tabitha’s heart ached. By morning, she had a plan. “I’m going to raise enough money to get someone else a service dog,” she told her parents at breakfast.

A Life-Altering Gift

Mary Katherine Milburn with Atti
“This dog changed my life!” says Mary Katherine, who received her beloved service pup, Atti, through Pawsitive PawsibilitiesRob Andrew Photography

That very day, Tabitha began reaching out to relatives and friends and managed to raise $5,000. And when she was awarded a matching grant from AT&T, she was even more overjoyed.

“I have enough to buy and train a dog for someone!” Tabitha told her doctor, who put her in touch with Mary Katherine Milburn, a 13-year-old with soft bone disease who relied on crutches and a wheelchair to get around.

The moment Mary Katherine laid eyes on her golden retriever/Lab mix, Atti, her face lit up.

“Atti can help me up and fetch my crutches,” Mary Katherine gushed to Tabitha. “And Mom doesn’t worry about me as much!”

Flush with success, Tabitha longed to give more people the gift of freedom, and with her mom’s help, she created a nonprofit called Pawsitive Pawsibilities (, where she is changing even more lives.

Veteran Eric suffered with PTSD before his Pawsibilities Labrador retriever, Stark, arrived to make the world less scary. Seth, a boy with cerebral palsy and autism, fell in love with his goldendoodle, Toby, who nuzzles him calm when he gets overstimulated. Grace Avila is a deaf college student whose Pawsibilities pup, Charlie, alerts her to important sounds, while partially paralyzed Amy Hansen, 44, has had such a surge of confidence since getting her dog, Hero, that she even rode a three-wheeler in one of Tabitha’s fundraiser races.

Today, Tabitha, now 20, has raised over $300,000, which means more than a dozen new service dogs are on the job — and she has no plans to slow down. “I know how life-changing a dog can be!” she says. While Sunny is enjoying retirement with Tabitha’s folks, Tabitha lives independently and attends UC Berkeley with her new best friend, a German shepherd named Nox. “I wouldn’t be where I am without my dogs,” she insists. “They’re a blessing, and it’s an even greater blessing being able to help others unleash their own Pawsibilities!”

From top left: Eabha with her service dog, Tucker, and physical therapist; Amy helps raise funds for Pawsibilities with her service dog, Hero; Amy Hansen with her service dog; Grace, who is deaf, gets by with a little help from her pup, Charlie

3 Health-Boosting Benefits of Pets

  1. Ease aches! People who spent just 10 minutes with a furry friend experienced a dramatic decrease in pain, according to a study in the journal Pain Medicine. How? Experts say it’s thanks to an increase in oxytocin, a hormone that can alter a person’s stress response and perception of pain — for up to three hours!
  2. Speed weight loss! Dog owners, on average, walk 22 minutes more per day, says a study published in the journal BMC Public Health. The result: Researchers have found that dogs not only encourage the extra steps that burn fat and speed weight loss, they also motivate their owners to stick with it for even more pounds shed!
  3. Reduce blood pressure! Animal therapy was shown to significantly reduce blood pressure, found a study at the UCLA Medical Center. And the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions reports that spending just 12 minutes with a dog improves heart function!

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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