Friends for life
Patriot Paws offers service dogs to disabled veterans
By April Towery
Adisabled veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is unable to go to his son’s ball games. He can’t leave the house and endure the crowds and the noise.
He wakes in the middle of the night and calls Patriot Paws, a Rockwall nonprofit organization, and asks what he has to do to get some relief.
With the help of a trained service dog, that veteran – who previously hadn’t left his house in four months – now spends weekends traveling out of state, going on 100-mile hikes and speaking on behalf of Patriot Paws.
An inmate confined to the Texas prison system wants to learn responsibility and how to help others. Patriot Paws, in cooperation with the prison warden, provides a puppy in need of a trainer. The service dog in training ends up transforming not only the life of the inmate who asked to become a trainer, but the lives of all the inmates in the unit. The added responsibility also provides the inmates with career opportunities upon their release from prison.
Statistics show that of the 300 Texas inmates who have trained Patriot Paws service dogs over the years, more than 100 have been released and just two of those have reoffended.
A U.S. Army medic can’t go anywhere without the help of her mother. She trembles and becomes physically ill in public settings.
With service dog Gus by her side, that young woman – aptly named Freedom – went back to college, goes on camping trips and participates in the annual Carry the Load march to honor the nation’s heroes.
“He’s my light when days are dark,” Freedom says of Gus. “He’s my warmth and my laughter when I just want to be numb. He’s my steady pressure and my alarm system when the nightmares are too much. He’s my arms and my legs when mine hurt too much to use. He’s my alert system so I don’t get hurt. He’s my responsibility and my motivation to try as hard as I can every single day.”
How it works
Patriot Paws begins training dogs when they’re about seven to eight weeks old. It can take up to two years of training before the dog is ready to become a service dog for a veteran. The pups are provided at no cost (a value of about $35,000 per dog) to disabled veterans who have mobile disabilities and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Once a veteran gets his service dog following two weeks of training with Patriot PAWS trainers, the veteran goes home with his dog to bond for two weeks. Then a trainer goes to their home and spends about a week working with the veteran and his service dog to tailor the dog to the veteran’s needs.
Founder and Executive Director Lori Stevens, a well-known and well-respected professional dog trainer, started the company in 2006 when asked to help with the dogs of disabled veterans.
“After working with these veterans and visiting the VA Hospital in Dallas, I realized just how many of our disabled veterans are in desperate need of assistance dogs and I knew I had to help,” Stevens said.
The project started small, with just eight dogs, but generous donations from the community have allowed Patriot Paws to expand to a campus of five buildings just outside of Rockwall where more than 20 dogs are housed at a time. About 80 dogs currently are in the program, although some are trained at different locations.
Patriot Paws service dogs are primarily Labradors, trained to assist those with mobile disabilities, rather than protect them. For example, they have a cue called “brace,” where they stiffen their legs and back so their owner can use the dog to steady himself as he or she out of a wheelchair. The canine companions also can help retrieve phones, pick up items off the floor, open doors and cabinets or alert their handler when it’s time to take medication.
“They’re working dogs,” explained Director of Development Sharon Satterwhite. “They don’t just lie around and do nothing. Our primary mission is to train for mobile disabilities.”
That means they’re not “guard dogs” trained for protection.
Protection dogs such as German shepherds can be viewed by the public as aggressive and can cause issues such as slowing down EMTs by getting in the way when medics are trying to transport a patient to an ambulance.
Because many of the veterans in the program have difficulty going out in public and facing crowds, Labradors work well because they’re not viewed as an aggressive breed. Once they’ve completed the training process, the dogs are comfortable navigating their owners through public places like church, the grocery store or a high school sporting event.
“We want veterans with post-traumatic stress to get out of the house,” Stevens said. “The service dogs can alert you when someone is coming up behind you, and they can be a buffer when someone is coming at you, but it’s not a protective mode. It’s just an alert, an ‘I care for you’ mode. These trained service dogs are much more likely to beat someone up with their tail than to ever bite them.”
Assistant Executive Director Terri Stringer added that while previously referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” post-traumatic stress disorder is now being recognized as an actual injury.
“It’s something they suffered as a result of what they did or what they saw,” she said.
Vietnam veterans had to just learn to deal with PTSD because they were so heavily criticized when they returned from the war, Stevens explained.
“Now that they’ve retired and they’re starting to be less busy, they’ll start seeing a lot of the signs of their post-traumatic stress as they get older,” she said.
Most of the struggling veterans want to get out of their homes and be more active – and they recognize the damage that staying homebound does to their family relationships.
Patriot Paws is entirely dependent on grants and private donations, and there are many, but most gifts (about 75 percent) are less than $50.
“Those [donations] are continuous and we can count on those,” Stringer said.
Purina donates all the food, and companies like Raising Cane’s chicken restaurant conduct fundraisers through the sale of plush puppies. Other charitable groups have held fundraising golf tournaments, donated furniture, provided labor and more.
Currently Patriot Paws has five intern trainers and three full-time trainers on site in Rockwall. Two full-time trainers are at Texas A&M, along with about 75 puppy raisers. The Dallas-Fort Worth Puppy Raisers group also assists in socializing the pups for three months at a time and ensuring that training cues and behaviors are maintained. That’s in addition to the prison program, where dogs are trained at Texas Department of Criminal Justice units in Gatesville and Fairfield.
“The prison program is one of my favorite parts about Patriot Paws,” Stevens said. “The inmates love it and they are learning to do something for someone else and not for themselves. At first it was scary going into the prisons, but when we partnered with TDCJ, that was one of the best things Patriot Paws could do. They’re given a dog 24-7. They’re learning responsibility; they’re building relationships back with their families. The wardens tell me the dogs have changed the lives of the whole unit.”
Stringer noted that a common criticism of the prison system is that nothing is done to rehabilitate offenders. The dog training program, she says, is a proven example of rehabilitation.
“It’s so gratifying to see that we can make a difference,” she said. “A lot of times they’ll tell us they’re getting positive feedback for the first time. Thirty percent of those who train the dogs and get out of prison go into animal-related fields – training, grooming, kennels.”
And outside the prison walls, with hundreds of volunteers, many show up daily to help out at the Rockwall facility, where they receive thorough training before they do so much as take a pup for a walk. Other volunteers assist with administrative duties, laundry and the kennel team. Volunteering is vital because there’s no government funding for Patriot Paws.
“They blow me away,” Satterwhite said of the volunteers. “It’s a huge time commitment.”
An orientation is held once a month on a Saturday, and a volunteer application is available online at patriotpaws.org.
In addition to the blessings of volunteers and the prison program, the staff at Patriot Paws loves to show off its new Veterans House – a residential/commercial facility fully equipped to accommodate two veterans and their pups overnight for up to two weeks.
The house, which will open in July for veterans in the Patriot Paws program, allows them to connect with the trainers on site, renew certification and ensure their training is up to date. The home is wheelchair accessible, and has a full kitchen and a pond in the backyard stocked with fish.
The Dallas Builders Association chose Patriot Paws as its signature charity, offering to build the home. Other community fundraisers and donations helped to furnish and decorate the home so it is now ready for veterans, giving them a chance to spend more time with the Patriot Paws trainers and save on hotel costs.
“We want them to feel like family, so they can come and see us every time they have a concern about the dog,” Stevens said. “They have to be recertified each year. We’re one of the few fully accredited organizations in the nation, and that means they have to come back and do a public access test.”
A bright future
The success stories are too many to tell, but one that has become almost the poster child for Patriot Paws is Freedom, the U.S. Army medic, and her companion Gus.
“She was horribly broken,” Stringer said of the young woman, who met with Patriot Paws soon after returning from deployment. “She wouldn’t leave her house; she wouldn’t go anywhere unless her mother came and got her and took her there.”
Freedom was trembling and panicking when she, her mother and her husband came to Patriot Paws.
“She went home with Gus and she and Gus bonded so tightly,” Stringer said. “She went back to school, graduated summa cum laude with degrees in biology and pre-med. She credits Gus for helping her to do that. She says he has made her realize the person she was before and helps her to try to be that person again.”
Freedom and Gus go camping by themselves all over the country and walk in the annual Carry the Load event.
“She could have never done that before Gus,” Stringer said.
It’s a great act of courage for a disabled veteran to ask for help, Stevens added.
That help comes in the form of a living, breathing canine companion who is trained to assist, give comfort and stability, responsibility and purpose. The veteran is enabled to do things he or she really wants to do, such as leaving their home and participating once again in events with family and friends.
In addition to training and placing dogs, a new initiative is underway at Patriot Paws. Stevens is planning to breed Pierce, a dog she’s been caring for over the last four months. It’s never been done before at Patriot Paws, but Stevens is confident that they can take on more challenges, as long as they’re helping others.
“You think you’re helping veterans, but it helps the families too,” Stevens said. “When someone comes and gives you a hug and says, ‘Thank you for giving my husband back,’ that’s just amazing.”
For more information, visit https://patriotpaws.org/