All across the United States, there have been numerous stories about how service dogs are helping veterans cope with PTSD and other issues resulting from their service to our country. Although the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs says that there is not enough research yet to know if dogs actually help treat PTSD and its symptoms, there is flood of anecdotal evidence that says otherwise. More and more organizations are being started all over the country to train dogs so they can be matched with veterans. Now there is hope for veterans living in central and Northern Michigan in the counties of Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Wexford, Otsego, Charlevoix, Antrim, Isabella, Gladwin, Roscommon, Midland, Bay, Clare and Marquette.
A Northern Michigan organization called Dogs in Honor (DIH) pairs and trains veterans with service dogs to create a healthy, mutually beneficial working team. Often these dogs can bring a veteran out of depression and isolation and gives them the ability to function more normally in a public setting. Dogs can be trained to retrieve objects, help with balance, help a veteran to get up, remind them to take medicine, alert them to things such as nightmares, stand guard, snuggle, distract them and relieve their stress and anxiety – in addition to being a constant companion.
DIH Founders and partners Lori Shaw of Farwell and Kimberly Wattles-Prud’homme of Traverse City have a love of dogs and understand how many of them have special talents that can help veterans in need. These women are motivated to help veterans because of their gratitude for the sacrifices they have made in order for Americans to live freely.
Shaw and Wattles-Prud’homme have been working and training dogs for a combined total of 45 years and both have been longtime volunteers for Leader Dogs of Rochester, an organization that pairs dogs with visually impaired and blind people so they can live more independent lives. Wattles-Prud’homme is raising and training her 15th Future Leader Dog pup named Salute and Shaw will be getting a new puppy in September to train.
Shaw and Wattles-Prud’homme started DIH after being inspired by a visit from Louis Carlos Montelvan and his service dog, Tuesday. Former Army Captain Montalvan served his country for 17 years and received many awards including two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He wrote a memoir about his service dog called “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him.” Montelvan and Tuesday were in Traverse City in November of 2013 to speak for an organization called A Matter of Honor (AMOH), a Traverse City non-profit organization formed to educate the public about PTSD as it relates to miilitary service.
Shaw recalls, “I began working with dogs and veterans in 2013 shortly after Kim invited a few Leader Dog friends up to see AMOH and Louis and his dog. I had read his book and was very excited. Shortly after, I approached Kim to see if she would be interested in starting a program for training dogs and veterans together that had PTSD/TBI (post traumatic stress disorder/traumatic brain injury). Kim said yes but to give her a little time before she would be able to get involved. The Spring of 2014, Kim came on board as my partner and we agreed on the name ‘Dogs in Honor.’ Kim and I began our program officially on September 14, 2014.” Both Shaw and Wattles-Prud’homme continue to support AMOH in addition to their activities with DIH and Leader Dogs.
Quite often, veterans are unable to acquire a service dog because of the cost of the training involved. The Dogs that are trained through DIH are given to the veteran for free. They are up to date on vaccines and are also spayed or neutered. Shaw and Wattles-Prud’homme work individually with each veteran and dog to foster a meaningful bond that will help veterans function better in society and in their homes.
The dogs in the DIH program usually come through the Leader Dogs program. They are retired dogs or dogs who may not have been interested in working for the blind but show potential for working as a service dog in other ways. They have basic obedience skills already, are tested and donated to DIH. So far, the dogs have been Labradors but Wattles-Prud’homme says that they are also hoping to get a Shepherd, Golden Retriever and a Lab/Golden Retriever mix in the future. They also graduated an English Mastiff in August.
Although some veterans have come into the program with their own dogs, they don’t always qualify for the type of assistance the veteran needs – they may be too small or unable to pass the obedience tests. Dogs in Honor will evaluate the dog and the veteran to see if the animal can be turned into a service dog. Most often, the veteran is paired with a dog provided by DIH.
Wattles-Prud’homme says that through their partnership with Leader Dogs, that organization does an initial screening and contacts DIH to visit and evaluate the dog. Once the dog is accepted into the program, the dog becomes the property of DIH after filling out the proper paperwork. DIH will take the dog into their home to evaluate the dog’s training level, temperament and willingness to learn new commands as well as seeing how they bond with a new person. The dogs will be trained in some basic commands and after meeting with the veteran to find out their needs, the best dog/veteran match will be made.
After consulting with the veteran’s VA doctor or therapist and getting the approval from medical staff, initial obedience training begins with dog and veteran. The dog and the veteran need to pass the AKC CGC (Canine Good Citizen) test before they move onto service dog training. This training takes anywhere from three months to a year depending on the type of service training and the bond between the pair. After Service Training is done and the pair has tested together through the ADA Public Access testing, the veteran and service dog are on “probation” and receive future visits and evaluations over the next year. At the end of that period, the service dog officially belongs to the veteran. DIH continues to be available to the veteran for the lifetime of the dog/veteran team for any problems or questions. The team also needs to be re-certified each year, which allows DIH to monitor any changes that might be needed in the training as well as to keep in contact with the friends they made over the training period.
DIH estimates that about 100 training/meeting hours are put into a veteran/service dog team to be able to get certified as a working PTSD service dog team. Training is done both on an individual and group basis. Wattles-Prud’homme says, “I personally travel all over Northern Michigan to train my clients!”
They currently have six graduates and have additional teams being trained at this time. There are two teams that will be tested within a month and four clients who are looking for and anxiously awaiting their personal pups to come in. One of the graduated client’s wife makes vests for the dogs as a graduation present. She can take their camo military shirts if they wish to help the bond between the veteran and the dog – or they can give the dog a red service dog vest and add specialized patches that the veteran chooses.
Both Shaw and Wattles-Prud’homme spend many hours every week with the organization, veterans and dogs – sometimes up to 20 hours a week. There is housing, training, traveling, evaluating and also the work of the organization including computer work, interviews, correspondence, Board meetings and more. They are currently in the process of becoming a non-profit and hope to get the final information on that soon. Funding for the program is through donations and fundraisers.
Dogs in Honor will be having a big fundraiser on September 11th in Traverse City. This year’s Patriot Game (Traverse City West vs. Traverse City Central football game) will give proceeds from the sales of t-shirts to Dogs in Honor. You can read more about the fundraiser here. In honor of veterans and active duty military, this year’s game will feature the unveiling of a new permanent Veteran’s memorial at Thirlby Field. First responders, veterans and active military are admitted to the game at no charge.
If you are a veteran who would like to apply to receive a service dog, please click here.
To donate to this great cause, please click here.