By Monica Gutos
Sit. Stay. Fetch. Roll over. We teach dogs a multitude of commands, but the puppies at Patriot Service Dogs are taught commands with a greater purpose: to help disabled veterans and active duty military in every capacity possible. Patriot Service Dogs, a 501(c)(3) organization with offices in Jacksonville and Belleview, Fla., was founded in July 2009 by Susan Bolton and Julie Drexel.
“We wanted to form an organization where all the dogs went to veterans for free,” says Julie, the chief executive officer of Patriot Service Dogs.
Puppy trainers raise the dogs from the time they are 8 weeks old, and the process can last from a year and a half to two years, depending on the dog. They take on the responsibility of training the dogs and taking them to class. The dogs are taught many commands such as turning on and off light switches; opening doors, drawers and cabinets; picking up dropped items; and helping their owner change clothes. They also teach dogs to brace, which allows a person to use the dog for support to get up off the floor.
“We meet weekly and go over training with the puppy raisers. We also have monthly meetings where we expose the puppies to different things like the zoo and the airport. We went to Disney one time. We go to the movie theater [and] restaurants, it’s all part of the training process,” says Susan, the president and executive trainer at Patriot Service Dogs. “Basically everything we do with the dogs is incorporated into their training. From day one we need to start training them to be just like a working dog…to behave in all sorts of situations.” The trainers test the dogs to make sure they not only get along with people, but they get along with other dogs as well.
Susan says her favorite part about raising the dogs is getting to watch them blossom. “When you see that light go on and you know that they realize what you want them to do.”
“But, then they [the dogs] end up doing other things. They end up being therapeutic to the people, just knowing they have that support,” says Julie. “So it does give them [the veterans] a real sense of independence.”
Patriot Service Dogs placed a dog with a Vietnam veteran who had been having vicious night terrors since the war. During the night he would start thrashing and breaking windows. However, having the service dog there helped the veteran with the night terrors because the dog would start barking whenever the thrashing happened.
Julie says that for those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), having a service dog helps them get out of situations when the person is feeling anxious. For example, the trainers can teach the dogs to bark on command so if a veteran is feeling cornered in a crowded room, he can get the dog to bark repeatedly, and use the opportunity to step outside of the uncomfortable situation.
Julie also mentions that many of the veterans with PTSD have expressed problems with turning corners at places such as grocery stores. So, the dogs are trained to check around corners to see if anyone is there. Julie says this is important because “once they’re startled, it’s hard for them [the veterans] to regain their composure. So we try to do things so they can avoid being startled.”
Lt. Chet Frith received his dog, Gunner, on Veterans Day 2011 to help him with combat-related PTSD. Chet explains after a year-long deployment in Iraq, every “trigger” (something that reminds him of a situation in Iraq) he is exposed to initiates a survival reaction and is based on combat-related experiences.
“Having a service dog allows me to shift my focus from a trigger, whether it is a wrapped package or a broken-down car. If I become nervous, he leans against me. If I enter an uncomfortable situation, I tell him ‘behind’ and he will walk behind me and have my back wherever I go.”
“One of the benefits I did not see until later is that Gunner forces me to interact with people. Many strangers come up to me and ask what he is for and start a conversation. Chances are, if you are having a conversation with me, your intention is not to do harm. It also shows me that there are genuinely good people in this world.”
In order to receive a service dog, applicants must either be a veteran or currently serve in the military. They also need a letter from their doctor describing why they would benefit from having a service dog, and applicants may have to explain why they think a service dog would help them, so trainers know what to focus on.
Most of the service dog recipients live locally because Patriot Service Dogs provides all the training for the recipient; however, some are from Georgia and South Carolina. Veterans go through two weeks of training where they are taught the basics of a service dog, proper etiquette and how to get a dog to go under a table. Julie says that things come up after the training, so it’s beneficial to have the volunteers close to the veterans in order to follow up.
Not only does the organization match service dogs with disabled military members and veterans, but it also has various programs to help the community and visits places such as nursing homes, hospices and women’s prisons. Their Sunshine Reading Program in Jacksonville Beach schools and libraries allows children to read to the dogs. “It gives children a chance to read and practice their skills without being judged,” says Susan.
If you are interested in applying for a service dog, becoming a puppy raiser or donating to Patriot Service Dogs, please call 904-777-1371 or visit patriotservicedogs.org.