My Imaginary Talk Show is proud to bring you a different kind of Veterans Day tale. You might call it a tail-wagging Veterans Day tale! Today, we’re talking about Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, an organization that provides trained service dogs for U.S. veterans with physical or emotional wounds. Yes, this is just the sort of heart-string tugging post you might expect on a the day set aside to thank our military veterans. Keep reading though. You’re going to get more than you bargained for!
The Woman Behind the Program
When professional dog trainer, Lori Stevens, was asked to help a group of disabled veterans at a VA Hospital in Dallas, TX by assisting them in training their dogs, inspiration struck. She knew she wanted to combine her background as a professional dog trainer with her sincere desire to make a difference in the world. So, she became the founder and Executive Director of Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, based out of Rockwall, TX.
Don’t call her a hero, though. Ms. Stevens is quick to point out that she is simply a woman who is able to give back to the true heroes who served in our military. I’ll play along and not call her a hero. But, just so we’re clear… She is one.
In 2006, Patriot PAWS opened in a small storefront after Stevens recruited a few friends and family members to help with the endeavor. They were only able to train a few dogs each year. Since that time, the organization has grown to fill a warehouse. They are currently hoping to acquire land to build a training center. There are a few paid staff members and a whole pack of volunteers. Some of those volunteers come from an unusual resource.
A Different Kind of Basic Training
When Patriot PAWS needed more volunteers to expand the program, they looked outside of the box and inside of the prison system! In 2008, they began partnering with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). For several years, they worked exclusively with the Lane Murray and the Crain Women’s Correctional Units in Gatesville, TX. In 2014, they began working with their first men’s prison at the Boyd Unit in Fairfield, TX. The inspired idea allows inmates to serve in fulfilling, life-changing jobs while serving their sentences.
It takes between one and a half and two years to train one service dog. The cost is a whopping $33,000 per dog, though they cost the veterans nothing. Patriot PAWS certified trainers work with the inmates and their dogs on a weekly basis. Once a week, Lori Stevens and her trainers also hold training classes for the inmates at their correctional facility. While in training, the dogs live with their inmate trainers in dormitory spaces. Each facility has an outdoor space for the dogs and an onsite training area. Inmates are able to work 24/7 training the dogs to meet their future challenges. At the same time, the dogs are helping the inmates overcome their challenges, learn how to accept responsibility, and do something selfless.
Dogs must master the fifty-five behaviors required for graduation, therefore, the inmates’ training skills are evaluated quarterly. The more advanced inmate trainers assist the novices with the positive reinforcement techniques used to train every Patriot PAWS pooch. Upon release, inmates who have experience with this program are able to use their proficiency as dog trainers to find employment. Two of the inmate trainers found work training dogs at Patriot PAWS training center! Since Patriot PAWS’s partnership with TDCJ started, fewer than 3% of the released inmate trainers have become reoffenders.
After the dogs successfully complete their “basic training,” they are taken to the Patriot PAWS headquarters where each dog is trained to meet the individual needs of his future owner. Each dog also receive specialized training in their veteran’s home.
Calling All Dog Lovers
You don’t have to have a criminal record to become a Patriot PAWS volunteer! Full-time puppy raisers open their homes and their hearts to dogs in training. This canine foster program provides a safe place and socialization for the future service dogs.
Requirements to be a puppy raiser include:
- Must be a dog lover who can provide a healthy environment for the dog
- Socializing the dog by taking it with you whenever possible (That includes taking the dog to work, the grocery store, and just about anywhere else you go.)
- Exercising the dog daily
- Reinforcing training daily
- Getting regular veterinarian care for the dog
- A family commitment to the dog’s welfare
- Attending bi-monthly training classes
- An understanding that the dog will be returned to the program and adopted by a veteran
- A responsible party for the dog who is at least 18-years-old
If having a full-time foster dog is not something you can do at this time, the organization also has weekend puppy raisers who pick up a dog from the Rockwall, TX center on Friday and return it on Monday morning.
At Your Service
Patriot PAWS service dogs are carefully selected from animal shelters, rescue groups, breeders, and service dog puppy raisers. Not every dog is up for the challenge. Dogs are screened for temperament and working ability. The organization provides mobility dogs, which are fully certified Service Dogs. Those animals are currently only available for veterans who served from Desert Storm to present. For older veterans, Patriot PAWS trains post-traumatic stress service dogs. The PTSD service dogs can be profoundly beneficial, but do not have the public access of the fully certified dogs. Whether their wounds are physical or emotional, veterans are able to achieve a new level of independence once they receive a service dog.
Mobility Service Dogs expectations are as follows:
- Seeking help when in case of seizures or other emergencies
- Positioning wheelchairs
- Assisting owner by picking up and retrieving items, including prosthetic limbs
- Opening and closing doors
- Assisting with chores, such as laundry
- Providing assistance with getting dressed
- Assisting owner to stand, walk, and sit down
Post-traumatic stress service dogs help by:
- Providing comfort from nightmares
- Calming sleep disturbances
- Calming anxiety
- Easing depression
- Providing emotional support, which lessons relationship difficulties
- Comforting owner during flashback episodes
Lori Stevens receives phone calls telling her that because of a service dog, a veteran did not have to spend the night on a bathroom floor after a fall. She feels some of the dogs have undoubtedly saved the lives of their veterans.
Veteran’s Best Friend
The waiting list is long and Stevens says that sometimes keeps her up at night. Your tax deductible donation to this non-profit organization can help get service dogs into the waiting arms of men and woman who have already served us.