Downeast Dog News
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K9 Programs to Support Vets

By Susan Spisak | Nov 01, 2021

Every November 11th, the U.S. celebrates Veterans Day to commemorate Veterans of all wars. This date was chosen for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, which is recognized as the end of World War I. We’re grateful to all retired veterans as well as active-duty military members who are dedicated to our country.

Unfortunately, many military service members who return from mobilization or deployment are changed. These veterans may have experienced horrific events and/or sustained life-threatening injuries, as well as mental, physical, and/or health-related disabilities.

Several organizations here in Maine realize that for veterans, a service dog or emotional support canine companion who’s trained to address their needs and/or perform specific tasks can provide relief by navigating them through their difficulties.

For Tracy A. Shaw, Executive Director of Maine Paws for Veterans, MPfV, being part of this non-profit is a personal journey for her, and one that is near and dear to her heart. “My father was a Vietnam veteran. He passed away in 2015,” she shared. That coupled with the fact that her husband is a U.S. Marine is her way to honor both and give back.

MPfV was established as Embrace A Vet in 2012, and they’ve graduated upwards of 140 teams combined. Their motto is “Serving Veterans with Invisible Wounds,” and to that end they only train dogs to ease service-connected PTS aka Post Traumatic Stress. This PTS Service Dog Program matches dogs with vets at no cost to them.

Shaw indicated this 501(c)(3) has three canine options. They may purchase pups for their “Raise to Train” Program. They’re nurtured by volunteers until they’re old enough to be paired with veterans, and then as a team, they’ll continue the twenty-six-week training. They also rely on shelter partners to provide hand-picked dogs as needed. These canines are SAFER tested and evaluated with Behavioral Assessment Tools. Lastly, there’s the Veteran’s Companion Dog option, whereby MPfV can transition their pet – if they meet the criteria – to their Service Dog.

When asked about success stories, a few jumped to her mind. One U.S. Air Force Veteran wanted his own Golden Retriever, Gunner, to be his Service Dog. Gunner passed all behavioral assessments, and the duo flew through training. “As soon as they graduated, they were wheels up,” Shaw laughed. The veteran and Gunner were off to Key West.

Mixed-breed Tucker came from the Animal Welfare Society of Kennebunk. “This dapper dude has made a remarkable difference in the daily life of his U.S. Army veteran.” The veteran wrote to MPfV that the program has made it easier for him to be in public and added, “It has helped our family so much, and Tucker has been such a great addition to the family.”

Poco was a U.S. Air Force veteran’s dog who liked to learn. “I thought I’d take a chance and try it,” he wrote to MPfV, meaning he wanted Poco to be schooled for Service Dog status. Now with added confidence in public, the veteran has discovered another bonus. “We’re not just learning a bunch of repeatable tricks; we’re learning how to take care of our dogs physically and mentally. Understanding why animals behave the way they do and how they tend to think is important to raising a healthy, well-adjusted dog.”

The 501(c)(3) Service Dog Strong, SDS, was co-founded in 2018 by sexual assault victims, veteran Simone Emmons and Kristen Stacy. SDS rescues shelter dogs to become Service Dogs, then pairs them with individuals or veteran “survivors” of sexual assault and/or Military Sexual Trauma who’ve been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Their mission is clear: “People Saving Dogs, Dogs Saving People.”

Once paired, the team goes through a twenty-week training program. This transforms the dogs and their human into a highly functioning and changed duo. “We have had some unbelievable success by helping participants feel safe to return to work, or stay at a job, start new things, or going back to driving,” Emmons said. She’s experienced this first-hand, “Both myself and my co-founder [Stacy] have service dogs ourselves, and believe in the power of animal connection and promote the importance of staying mentally healthy.”

Army veteran Melissa Chason is thankful to SDS. She and her three-year-old mini-Australian Shepherd, Gunner, went through training. “Getting her service dog training has helped with PTSD issues from sexual assault in the army. [Gunner] makes me feel more comfortable at home alone and dealing with people walking up behind me while out in public.” She added that Gunner knows when she gets anxious and allows her to regroup. “I think she has really changed my life for the better…She helps get me back out into the community.”

To date, SDS has made seven matches and have another upcoming class – and there are hopeful applicants. SDS, as is the case with most programs, follows up with their graduates, too. “When done with the class, they must recertify every two years for their service dog training, and we are always available to assist if past participants need additional refresher classes.” She added that the next class participants have been chosen, and some have been paired with a dog. The all-volunteer SDS welcomes donations for their cause. For more, SDSMaine.org.

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Christy Gardner is Founder and President of Mission Working Dogs. Gardner understands the importance of Service Dogs – she relies on one herself. Because she’s accomplished much in her stateside life with her dog by her side, including playing on the US Women's Sled Hockey Team and the New England Warriors, and participating with Team USA on Women’s Para teams, this certified Service and Therapy Dog trainer wanted those who’d benefit from specially trained canines to realize success in their lives as well.

Mission Working Dogs trains Mobility Assistance and PTSD Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Facility Service Dogs. The nonprofit’s goal is to aid individuals with disabilities live a full, independent life. Claire Parker, their Treasurer and Youth Advisor, said they’re planning to build a training center on Gardner’s homeland in Oxford. “We’re always taking donations.” They need volunteers for fundraising, puppy raising, and puppy socialization. Upcoming events include a meet-up at the Red Barn in Augusta (takeout), with info and swag for sale. Look for their group in the OHCC Christmas Parade in Norway on Nov 27th parade. For more info and to donate, missionworkingdogs.org/.

K9s on The Front Line is a Maine-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit (with a Missouri Chapter) that provides certified, trained service dogs to military veterans who are affected by PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries, at no cost. Their motto is “Unleashing Hope, One Dog at a Time.” K9s on The Front Line’s mission is to harness the human and dog connection, pairing veterans with service K9s to form a mutually rewarding bond and hope again for both. For more info: k9sonthefrontline.org/.

Animal Trainer Clarissa Black created the non-profit Pets for Vets, Inc. in 2009 to say thank you veterans. Currently, there are twenty chapters nationally. The Portland Chapter is headed up by Director Marianne Quinn. Pets for Vets strives to create the feelings of immediate recognition, comfort, and security when a veteran is matched with his or her animal, also known as the “Super Bond.” The Portland Chapter boasts heartwarming stories. To read them and to navigate to all info: petsforvets.com/portland-me/matches.

Family-founded in 2015 and with a total of thirty years in this field, Ambassador Assistance K9s International (AAKI) brings humane and highly effective professional dog-partner training to those individuals who'd benefit, including veterans. Dog-partner areas that AAKI specializes in but isn’t limited to includes Sight, Mobility/Balance, Hearing, Psychiatric, Assistance, Combination Assistance/Service as well as Therapy and Emotional Support Dog Training.

"Working Dogs Changing Lives" and "The Human-to-Animal-Bond" are the mantras behind AAKI. “Built upon this firm relationship foundation, the magic of the human-to-animal bond arises from ongoing and ever-improving teamwork between the dog and human,” AAKI’s founder said.

AAKI raises and trains Service and Therapy Dogs on their premises, but they prefer to have the puppy/dog placed right away with the veteran/individual. They have weekly training modules, including at-your-home and/or detailed distance training. These skill sets are just a snapshot of what the for-profit AAKI offers. For details, certification info, and application: ambassadorassistancedogsinternational.org/.

Thank you to these organizations who are dedicated to Veterans.