“Dogs are minor angels…”
It seems including a service dog in my logo wasn’t just wishful thinking: I was on my way home from watching Frank & Robot yesterday when I received a call from Freedom Service Dogs in Denver telling me I was soon to be blessed with a new traveling companion. It was a touch of synchronicity, because the film was, in part, about companionship and our dependence on others, no matter how tough or self reliant we imagine ourselves to be…
I have had a series of best friends of different breeds. My dogs and I have always viewed the world together with a slight turn of the head before heading off together to enjoy a quiet walk in the woods or a sunset over the lake. Dogs are charitable sidekicks: always seeming to know what not to say at just the right time.
This will be new for me. Unconditional love is part of a dog’s DNA, so I feel a little guilty about asking more of a friend who, even without training, will do more for me than I will ever do for him.
FSD tells me that Gander is the name of my PTSD savvy buddy-to-be. He is a chocolate, mixed breed who was rescued from a shelter before being enlisted in the service and trained by FSD’s extraordinary team of handlers.
FSD was founded in 1987 by P.J. and Michael Roche after a disabling car accident that personally informed them about the tremendous need for canine helpers. The program has strategic alliances with the VA, Denver University’s Institute for Human/Animal Connection and the Graduate School of Social Work and Assistance Dogs International a training standards organization.
I was in China and in the midst of my physical and PTSD symptoms worsening I found myself rescuing local strays and in doing so I noticed improvement in my affect and mobility. I had seen videos of pets being brought to nursing homes and prisons to combat depression, but I had no idea that it was a fast evolving treatment strategy in the U.S. for veterans. Soon after, I watched a video about FSD and began to explore the possibility of a service dog for myself. I was sure that a match for me would be life changing.
FSD answered my email the same day and I downloaded the application. FSD is appropriately cautious and very thorough. Each of the 35-40 dogs they train each year costs from $20-25,000 for its 9-12 months of specialized training and is then gifted, at no cost, to the veteran. Before receiving a dog, the recipient must meet eligibility requirements, wait 12-18 months for a match and then attend three weeks of training with handlers and the dog.
The professional staff considers themselves to be”dog people” first and foremost. That means each veteran sign contracts that call for high-level care of the service dog. FSD makes a lifetime training and care commitment to both the dog and his human.
The application process was a several week journey for me. I secured the required medical evaluation and certification from my VA doctor, finished my personal statement, and took it with me to FSD in Denver for the required face-to-face interview and matching procedure. For matching, the handlers brought in poodles, labs, and a gentle giant of a dog they appropriately called Zeus. They watched carefully to see how dogs and I got along. I not-so-secretly hoped for a black lab. But, one look at Gander’s intelligent, confident, scruffy face yesterday and I couldn’t remember why I wanted a different breed of dog.
I will be heading for Denver in September to meet and attend school with Gander. In the interim, he is being taught to to do specific tasks the team identified for me:
- Retrieving items to my hand
- Turning lights on when I enter my house
- “Check it out” or “clear the room”: Having him check for anyone else that might be there.
- Find the phone to retrieve it in an emergency situation.
- Find a person when needed
- Brace to get up: He will help me get back up if I fall. (When I first spoke to FSD I had real trouble with autoimmune arthritis issues. They are better now. )
- Block/Post: He will stand in front or behind me to create “safe” space in public
- Lean and interact: He will lean on me to keep me grounded and attending to what is around me. I hear he loves to lean in and kiss…
- He will interact with me in ways that will help pull me out of night terrors or nightmares
- He will heel very close to my right leg (it is usually the left) when I am walking so that he can help me walk across pedestrian bridges and stay more in the middle away from real or imagined danger
My life has already changed. I’m walking a little brisker and I’m attending to people with dogs the way an expectant father cops at infants in the supermarket. School in Colorado can’t get here fast enough. As Corey Ford said: “Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.”
My indiegogo campaign for Gander:
I will be telling you more about my minor angel in weeks to come. In the meantime, please follow FSD on Twitter: http://twitter.com/freedomsvcdogs and visit their service dog website to see how you might help.