A Man’s Best Friend for Veterans [UPDATED]Published 1:00pm Monday, February 10, 2014 Updated 10:45am Monday, March 31, 2014
ARTICLE BY ELIZABETH MAHAN
PHOTOS BY BRITTNEY EISCHENS
To quote an old saying, a dog is man’s best friend.
With respect to Linda Wiedewitsch and her organization Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD) in Detroit Lakes, a dog becomes more than man’s best friend. A dog which has completed Linda’s intensive course in psychiatric service training connects a veteran to his or her community in life changing ways. Thanks to Linda’s knowledge in dog training, a Patriot Assistance Dog gently leads a veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Depression, and/or other psychiatric symptoms from the vivid memories of the battlefield to the day to day activities of civilian life.
Patriot Assistance Dogs came about through a rather convoluted route. Combine Linda’s love of animals, with her first career in law enforcement where she trained with police dogs, with her daughters’ commitment to training puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind, and with her experience as the Area Coordinator for Can Do Canines™. Add Senator Al Franken’s Service Dogs for Veterans Act which is currently studying the impact of psychiatric service dogs with veterans on a national level. Then insert Linda’s sense of urgency to help veterans in this area, and you get a special organization which is committed to linking veterans with specifically trained service dogs. Linda admits that she is “hopelessly hooked” on training service dogs. It is that commitment which makes a difference in veterans’ lives. Since its founding, PAD has certified and matched 14 dogs with 13 veterans and one civilian. As Linda describes PAD, “this is a start up program. There is no other program like us.”
PAD’s training makes use of specific commands to alleviate the stress and anxiety brought on by psychiatric illnesses and symptoms. Linda believes the commands work because they mimic a military environment. Essentially, the dogs work as the veteran’s battle buddy to protect him in stressful situations. Commands such as “get my back” and “block” mimic military commands. A gentle cuddle from the dog will provide comfort and relieve anxiety. When a veteran finds himself in a stressful situation, the dog sets into action to find an escape route. When a veteran experiences a night sweat or night terror, the dog will awaken her to bring about an end to the trauma. Linda also assesses the veteran’s specific needs for a psychiatric service dog. For a veteran who needs assistance with taking medications, Linda will train that dog to demand to be fed at the same time a veteran needs to take his medications. The dog’s asking for food serves as a gentle reminder to the veteran to take his medication.
Linda’s passion for training service dogs is infectious.
How else can you explain the commitment on the part of the dogs, foster trainers, and veterans? The dogs must pass rigorous physical, mental, and temperament tests. All Patriot Assistance Dogs are certified under the American Kennel Club Good Citizen Standard. The foster trainers, with whom the dogs live before they are placed with a veteran, must commit to raising and training the dogs in their own homes. That commitment requires the foster trainers to bring the dogs to weekly sessions as well as commit to training the dog at home on a daily basis. Foster trainers and dogs work both in the classroom at Lucky Dog Boarding and Training Center and in the Detroit Lakes Community. One of Linda’s favorite places to train is toy aisle at Walmart™. The squeaky toys serve as tempting distractions which the dogs must overcome.
Veterans themselves must meet strict criteria before they are matched with a dog. They must be diagnosed with and treated for a psychiatric illness and/or disorder. Their mental health provider must assess that a psychiatric service dog will be beneficial to them. The veterans must then apply and go through an interview process. If accepted into the program, they must complete 64 hours of training. Following the training, a sponsor monitors the veteran’s progress with the dog. Veterans must complete a two year probationary period before assuming ownership of the dog. The total financial coast for raising and training a Patriot Assistance Dog is $15,000. As a result of Linda’s and Board Members fundraising strategies, most of the costs are paid by donations. “Our goal is to be able to waive the fees for dogs placed with veterans,” says Linda.
Testimonials abound for Patriot Assistance Dogs.
“This program is absolutely awesome,” says Mary Jimmerson. Mary’s passion for PAD is evident on two fronts. She is a member of the governing board for PAD. Secondly, she is the only civilian with a Patriot Assistance Dog, Mary purchased her dog from the program. She knows firsthand what a psychiatric service dog means. “Having a dog by you is calming. A dog at your side helps you go back to work, go to the grocery story, go back to school, and lead a normal life.” The bond between a Patriot Assistance Dog and its owner runs deep. After a PAD retires from active duty, the dog will remain with the veteran for the rest of its life. Retirement does not mean separation.
Linda wonders what will happen to Patriot Assistance Dogs when Senator Franken’s study on veterans with psychiatric service dogs is completed in 2014. “We might be absorbed by a national or state wide program. In the meantime, we are making a difference for veterans in this area.”