Patriot Assistance Dogs: Helping Dogs and Veterans

In 2012, a relationship began between Second Chance Pups and Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD). The latter is a program founded to fill a need for homeless and neglected dogs and for Military Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other psychiatric struggles.

Linda Wiedewitsch, administrative assistant for PAD, explained in my email interview with her that the dogs in the program come from “city pounds, rescue organizations, individuals who can no longer care for their pet, and conscientious breeders”. One of those rescue organizations is Second Chance Pups. Linda described the Second Chance Pups volunteers as being “familiar with the qualities of a good psychiatric service dog” and said that Second Chance Pups will alert PAD to good candidates when dogs graduate from its program.

ALLISON: What happens when a dog transfers from Second Chance Pups to PAD? How does PAD decide what dogs to accept?

LINDA: All dogs that come into our program are assessed for temperament, train ability, and for medical health. Second Chance Pups handles the first two assessments during the eight weeks of training. PAD pays for the medical workup which includes a blood panel, cardiac exam, dental exam and any needed extractions, and x-rays of hips and elbows. All dogs have been spayed or neutered and are current on vaccinations before entering the prison program.

Photo from Patriot Assistance Dogs
Photo from Patriot Assistance Dogs

ALLISON: How does PAD help Veterans?

LINDA: There are many organizations that train service dogs for those who are sight or hearing impaired, need assistance with mobility, seizures or blood sugar highs and lows. But since the Veterans Administration does not currently recognize psychiatric assistance dogs as a viable form of treatment, there is no VA funding available for Veterans to receive these dogs.

Therefore, a small group of dedicated people in west-central Minnesota organized Patriot Assistance Dogs to utilize young, healthy and trainable rescued dogs to help treat Military Veterans diagnosed with and treating for mental health issues. There is no cost to the Veteran for the dog, the training the dog receives, the week-long training class that matches the dog and the Veteran or for the $300 worth of equipment each team receives. The Veteran must be physically and financially able to travel to our location for the training, provide for his/her food and lodging during the training and to financially care for the dog for the life of the dog.

ALLISON: If I were to visit to see training, what might a typical day look like?

LINDA: When the dogs come to PAD they work on behaviors out in public, which means they have to be so good they are often neither seen nor heard. We train on transportation (private and public); stairs, elevators and multiple floor surfaces; traffic and construction noise; with fire departments, EMS, security screening; restaurants, bars and buffet lines; street fairs, sporting and community events; children, other dogs, birds and animals all of which may or may not be well-behaved; and much more.

The dogs are also taught a set of comfort skills that qualify them to be service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). PAD’s dogs are taught to interrupt anxiety and panic attacks, guide their Veteran away from stress inducing environments, interrupt road rage and/or night terrors/sweats at home, create a personal space around the Veteran by blocking and watching the Veteran’s back, take over some of the hyper-vigilance, and in some cases remind the Veteran to take medications on time.

Some parts of the training are done by professional trainers on site at the kennel, other parts are done by the dog’s foster family in a home setting, and the remaining training is done by volunteers who work under the direction of trainers during field trips into the community. Each dog must pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen evaluation and must be capable of passing the Assistance Dogs International’s public access test before that dog is allowed to meet and train with a Veteran. Once matched with a Veteran, the dog/Veteran team must train until they can pass those two standards together as well as demonstrate or articulate at minimum three comfort skills that the dog performs for the Veteran.

PAD offered me the chance to get my life back.  Since I’ve been paired with my service dog, my PTSD symptoms have decreased and as a result, I’m back in the workforce.–US Army Retired Veteran

ALLISON: Are there dogs that don’t graduate? Then what?

LINDA: Dogs may be career changed out of the program at any point. Most are lost early on due to poor temperament or inability to pass medical. Some just don’t have the right personality to be a service dog and are unable to complete the training.  A limited number of dogs have taken on the anxieties of the Veteran and become unable to offer the needed support. These dogs are career changed (CC).

If the agency or person that donated the dog asked to have the dog returned should it not complete training, then that request will be honored. Dogs that are too timid or too protective to work in public are offered to Veterans who do not qualify for a service dog but would benefit from having a companion dog; a buddy at home and in their vehicle but without public access rights. Some CC dogs are requested by the families who fostered them. The remaining CC dogs are placed for adoption (with donation requested) to carefully screened homes.

ALLISON: What does graduation day look like?

LINDA: Graduation day is the “Serving Those Who Served” event held annually, the last weekend in September. The teams that have completed training and testing in the past twelve months are recognized during a public ceremony and honored with a graduation plaque. There are other fun events planned for the day and weekend.

Detroit Online carried a story in June 2016 about a local Iraq veteran. Geoffrey Zehnacker of rural Detroit Lakes  escaped an IED booby trap with a leg injury that has since healed, but he didn’t escape traumatic brain injury. The symptoms from it sidelined him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but thanks to a service dog he can deal with his problems without using prescription tranquilizers or pain pills. Stories like these are the reason that Patriot Assistance Dogs exists.

Adding the prison program gives PAD a third “win”; first the dogs are rescued, then the prisoners contribute positively to a society they have wronged and finally the Veterans receive a treatment option with very few negative side effects.   (There are the dog hair, nose art on windows and ‘I have to go out now’ issues.)–Linda


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