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Allen County SPCA dogs find new life as companions for veterans with disabilities

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Thursday, April 11, 2013 - 7:13 am

Mike Rowland of Animal Training and Development, Dave Harris of Our Turn to Serve and the Allen County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have teamed up to help veterans, one dog at a time.

Our Turn to Serve is a northeast Indiana nonprofit that works with veterans with disabilities to make their lives a little easier. Founded in 2008 Harris said they first concentrated on making the homes of veterans with disabilities user-friendly. But in 2012 a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, who lives in Auburn contacted Harris and told him the VA refused to help him acquire a service dog. The VA had turned him down because there is no evidence that service dogs are beneficial for veterans with PTSD.

It was around that time that Harris met Rowland at a wedding reception and Rowland offered to use his skills as a dog trainer and his connection with Jessica Henry, director of the ACSPCA, to find dogs and train them as service animals for area veterans. Harris was able to get some grant money through the H.J. Hines Foundation, which also works with Wounded Warrior, for the program.

Harris said when a veteran returns with a missing limb, it is much easier for him or her to get assistance and sympathy. PTSD is an invisible wound that affects veterans, their family and friends. Current treatment uses counseling and drug therapy. Harris is hopeful that by using service dogs, the positive emotional bond could reduce the amount of counseling and drug therapy, creating a cost savings in treatment.

Harris is in discussion with the University of Saint Francis study this. He is hoping to reach out to other trainers around the country to pool information that could be used in the study. He would like to have empirical-based evidence to give to the VA so that someday the federal government will agree to pay for service dogs for their PTSD veterans.

So far they have had three dogs in the program. One is now with its veteran. Two others, from the ACSPCA, are in training. Besides giving emotional support these dogs can do practical things like carry oxygen tanks and provide stability when leaned on. The newest dog, Maggie, formerly Buttercup, a yellow Labrador retriever, will also be trained to fetch items for her veteran.

Henry said Rowland has a gift for looking at a dog and being able to figure out in a short amount of time if it will be right for the veteran. Rowland said you can't tell a dog to bond with someone, but somehow it knows. On his first visit with Lady, one of the service dogs in training, to her future veteran's home, Lady broke down-stay and left a “chewy” to go over and follow the veteran when he left the room.

“She just had a sixth sense, that's my guy,” Rowland said.

The training takes months, both in the doggie “classroom,” and out in public. The dogs live with Rowland as they go through the training and he gives them seven to 10 days to adjust to their new lives before he starts working with them. Rowland likes to take the dogs out to busy public areas like Glenbrook Square and Jefferson Pointe shopping areas and the Menard store on Illinois Road. There are a multitude of distracting noises and scents for the dogs to get used to.

On a recent Sunday, Rowland and his assistant Amber Ludwig, had Lady, a black lab mix, and Maggie out for some public training at the Menard store. Each dog wears a service vest when she works. The moment it goes on the dog is taught she is at work. Lady carries the extra weight of two oxygen tanks in long pockets on either side of her vest. Her veteran will use the tanks once she is placed.

Entering the store the dogs heel beside their handlers and weave their way through the long aisles, stopping for a down-stay in the patio furniture area and then onto circling the dog food aisle. Lady, who has been in training longer, didn't bat an eye at the yummy scent of kibble wafting from the shelves, but Maggie, still a newbie, was busy sniffing the air and throwing longing looks toward the shelves. Ludwig gently corrected her and brought her back to heel. Rowland doesn't use food as a reward but praise and pets instead.

“The program is helping veterans and homeless dogs find homes and a new purpose,” Harris said.