Patriot PAWS Service Dogs
Patriot PAWS Service Dogs is a Rockwall, Texas-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of disabled veterans by providing specially-trained service dogs at no charge to the recipient. Created in February 2006 by Lori Stevens, Patriot PAWS benefits not only disabled veterans, but also changes women’s lives through their prison training program in which female inmates are given instruction on dog training. The women, currently serving at the Crain Women’s Correctional Unit and the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas, teach the service dogs such skills as getting help in an emergency, retrieving items, opening and closing doors, pulling wheelchairs, helping with chores, and various other tasks as needed. Some of the dogs are even able to detect oncoming Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) episodes and assist the veterans in averting them.
Founder Lori Stevens, who has been training dogs for over 20 years, was named 2009 Woman of the Year by the American Legion Auxiliary, an award which in the past has been given to women like Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth Dole, Laura Bush, and others. Stevens intends to enhance the lives of disabled veterans by helping them restore independence and self-sufficiency, and it is certain that any person who has received one of these amazing companions would say that she is accomplishing that goal. “It is truly a remarkable experience to watch these men and women who have so proudly and gallantly served our country when they connect with a dog,” said Stevens. “Some of these veterans have not been out in the world since their injury, preferring to stay in the relative comfort and security of their homes. Once they receive their service dog, some of these recipients begin traveling and shopping and returning to some form of normalcy.”
Lori’s service dogs, typically Labrador Retrievers, are obtained from shelters, rescue groups and reputable breeders and are individually selected based on a variety of factors. Training lasts between 18 months and 2 years, and at the completion of training the dogs are tested and certified according to Assistance Dogs International (ADI) standards. It is preferred that the dog actually choose his veteran, as opposed to the other way around. The staff observes the veteran interacting with multiple service dogs and waits until a certain dog makes his choice clear. The veteran spends 7 to 10 days at the training center learning commands and resultant behavior, and how to continue training at home. “After the veteran goes home with their new service dog, we give them a few weeks to acclimate and then we travel to their home to customize the dog to their home environment and to accompany the veteran/dog team when they begin public outings,” Stevens said. “It is imperative that the veteran and service dog team know that assistance from Patriot PAWS does not end once they receive a dog.”
The dogs completely change the lives of the veterans, thanks to the training received in the prison training program, which has also been a godsend to the women who have been selected to participate. The women are trained by Patriot PAWS staff on proper dog training techniques, and the experience helps them grow as well as giving them a new skill which they may be able to use to find work when they are released. “These women experience a tremendous lift to their self confidence and self respect,” said Stevens. “While spending much of their prison time under the cloak of indifference, being a Patriot PAWS trainer makes a prisoner feel important and that they are making a difference in the world.”
Since the beginning of the prison training program in 2008, 11 women in the program have been paroled, none of whom have returned to prison. At least half of the parolees are now working in dog-related jobs, and one parolee, Rhonda Lee, is now a full-time Patriot PAWS employee. Lee says working for Patriot PAWS is her way of giving back to society.
Achieving the goal of changing lives certainly isn’t cheap. Training a dog costs between $20,000 and $30,000 and since the vets aren’t expected to pay for the service, donations of all kinds are extremely important to the livelihood of the program. Money is obviously very helpful to the cause and donations are tax-deductible. Patriot PAWS also needs volunteers to do everything from bathing and walking dogs, to organizing fundraisers, office work, and so on. While donations of family pets are not accepted, you can contribute by donating dog toys, treats, leashes, collars, gift cards to pet stores, and dog food (Pro Plan and Natural Balance brands). Fundraising on their behalf is greatly appreciated, and if possible, Patriot PAWS can send a trainer with a service dog to demonstrate their skills at your fundraising event.
Stevens is grateful for the assistance that her organization has received, but also knows that she needs more help to attain Patriot PAWS’ goal of helping as many vets as possible. “It is our goal to soon be able to place upwards of 25 dogs a year,” Stevens said. “Currently, we have 31 dogs in training and 40 plus veterans on the waiting list, so the need is always great.” Stevens says seeing the change in the veterans’ lives makes all the hard work worthwhile. “They find that they belong in the world again, and that the dog gives them the comfort and support that allows them that freedom,” Stevens said. “Seeing that, how could I want to be anywhere else?”
For more information or to see how you can help, please visit http://www.patriotpaws.org .
For interviews with women in the prison training program and an interview with a thankful veteran, see http://www.youtube.com/patriotpaws .