Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Scenes from a Service-Dog Graduation

It's a sultry spring Friday afternoon outside the Gold Star Museum on Camp Dodge, Johnston, Iowa. The sun is out, the wind feels soft, and you can smell the earth. Even the military-grade grass on the adjacent parade field is beginning to turn green. To every thing, there is a season.

Inside, there is happy chaos. A hundred little crises have come together in an event that seems part high-school graduation open house, part family reunion, part end-of-season sports team banquet. The mood is upbeat and bittersweet, and there's often not a dry eye or nose in the room. A few funny stories, an emotional music video, and plenty of puppies. Labrador Retriever puppies, both black and tan.

Nobody plays "Pomp and Circumstance" (or should that be "Paws and Circumstance"?), but, later, there will be marble cake. And a barbecue. Because nothing good happens in Iowa without grilling a sacrifice.

More than 50 people have turned out to celebrate the next steps forward for nine Midwestern veterans and their new canine partners. The dogs are psychiatric service and mobility animals, trained by Paws & Effect to perform physical tasks that mitigate conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) and limited ranges of movement. They are trained to respond to their handlers' flashbacks or nightmares, for example, or to retrieve objects that are out of reach.

While the animals no doubt also provide an emotional or therapeutic benefit—in covering these kinds of stories, news reporters typically cite here the calming effects of pet ownership—they are not pets. Neither are they "companion," "emotional support," or "stress-relief" animals. They are working dogs, heading out into a working world.

Since 2006, the Des Moines, Iowa-based non-profit organization has trained therapy and service animals for Midwestern veterans and others, and educated and advocated regarding laws requiring service-animal access to public spaces. The organization is often augmented by trainers from Canine Craze, West Des Moines.

In the past two weeks, the veterans have met their service dogs for the first time. They've lived, eaten, slept, played, and worked with their partners, developing emotional bonds and basic understandings.

Think of it as Boot Camp, but with paws. After graduation, everything else is on-the-job training. And annual refresher courses.

As with military training, classroom presentations are followed by field exercises. The veterans, now dog-handlers, learn to navigate venues such as shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, and airport security checkpoints. When traveling by air, the dogs are trained to lay down in the underseat luggage area. The veterans practice the maneuver on a passenger aircraft parked at the Des Moines International Airport.

During the placement course, Paws & Effect temporarily bases its operations out of the Dodge House, a small, single-story facility across the street from the museum—and right next to the house inhabited by Maj. Gen. Timothy Orr, the adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard.

Named after the same Civil War general from which the Camp Dodge takes its name, the single-story Dodge House is often rented for social and other events. It features a kitchen, a sunroom, and a expansive front porch. After classroom discussions there, the veterans train with their dogs until both are tired, then sneak an occasional cat nap. After dinner, they watch movies and play training "games." The veterans cheekily rechristen the building the "Dog House."

The March 30 graduation is the first and last time that many recipients will see the families who helped raise their animals as puppies. Puppy-raisers include both civilian and military foster families, who volunteer to help dog-trainers from Paws & Effect socialize, work, and train animals at home and in public. (Under Iowa law, service-dogs-in-training are afforded the same rights as other service animals.)

The puppy-raiser relationship lasts approximately 18 months, during which time the non-profit carefully monitors the health, training, and personality of each animal. Paws & Effect pays for food, medicine, equipment, and other expenses. One dog can cost the organization up to $25,000 in supplies, care, and training.

At the same time, Paws & Effect identifies prospective recipients through channels such as the Iowa National Guard and the Community-Based Warrior Transition Unit (C.B.W.T.U.) at Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., an installation located on the Mississippi River along the "east coast" of Iowa.

While there have been other dogs placed individually, Friday marks the first formal placement course and graduation for Paws & Effect. Three more litters are already in the works for placement in late-2012 and early-2013. One is named after military land navigation terms, such as "Pace," "Ridge," and "Hilltop". The other is named after radio-friendly phonetic alphabet characters, such as "Charlie," "Oscar," and "Victor". (Nicole Shumate, director and dog-trainer-in-chief for Paws & Effect, reserves the "Alfa"-dog label for herself.)

The 2012 class notably includes "Ryder" and "Archer," two of the "Red Bull" litter named last year in honor of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. Others still in training include "Havoc," "Avanc├ęz" (who goes by "Van"), and "Sabre."

The 2012 graduating Paws & Effect service dogs and their human partners are:
  • Anthem and Joe
  • Archer and Troy
  • Hero and Dustin
  • Honor and Wade
  • Liberty and Casey
  • Merit and Mitch
  • Roo and the Iowa National Guard. (Roo will be a "facility dog," used for hospital visits to wounded warriors, Soldier Readiness Processing, behavioral health assessments, and other missions.)
  • Ryder and Bill
  • Valor and Dean
The puppy-raisers have prepared "legacy" books—collections of letters, photos, memorabilia documenting their puppies' early lives. As groups of puppy-raisers, veterans, and dogs are recognized with applause, trainers and others tell stories about each match or pairing:
"It was clear that Anthem was going to be Joe's dog from the start," says Paws & Effect director Nicole. "I just wish Tammy had told me that Anthem liked carrots for rewards. And not just any carrots, mind you: They had to be coins. And they had to have ridges."

****

"I felt like I was writing a dating-service ad for my dog," says puppy-raiser Travis, about starting to write a note for Hero's legacy book: "'My dog is the best-looking and smartest dog.'" He ended up writing five pages.

****

"My dog is just the right balance of challenge and complement," says one recipient. Another says, "I got my smile back."

****

A number of the veterans observe the placement course was the first they'd slept soundly in a long time. Another veteran reports that, twice in one night, his dog had woken him from a nightmare by licking his face.

****

Nicole notes that one veteran had neglected to tell her that he might have a leg amputated in coming months. She and the puppy-raiser gave the dog a 6-day crash course in mobility-assistance skills, such as how to retrieve objects. "At one point, I was getting hourly updates: 'The dog is picking up keys ...' 'The dog is picking up frozen peas ...'" Apparently, the training took, she says, because the veteran later wondered why "the dog will not stop handing me things!"

****

Family members also offer words of wisdom, thanks, and humor. "During class, I was the one who asked one day about what happens when my husband and I start getting a little ... 'active,'" one spouse shares, to friendly laughter. "Would the dog think I was hurting him? The group decided I should ask you, the puppy-raisers, about that." As she makes eye contact with the couple who raised her husband's new service dog, the room breaks into giggles. Not to worry, the couple responds: The dog is fully trained.
After the laughter, as promised, there is cake. And barbecue.

"To everything, there is a season."

It is springtime in Iowa.

You don't need to be a dog to smell the possibilities.

This essay originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog, April 4, 2012. Photos courtesy of Paws & Effect.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

After eighteen months...

...it's awfully nice to see it come to fruition...

Congratulations to the first graduates of
"We Serve With Honor."




And ENORMOUS thanks to all the puppy raisers, dog trainers,
and other volunteers who helped make this a reality.


"Buried in Winter" ® 2010 Jeff Pianki
used with the permission of Jeff Pianki

"The grass grew in on the underside of the snow
And the summer had smelled so sweet
Now all I smell is cold.

"Your brother lived there
on the other side of the road
You still count the days,
before he makes his way back home.

"So hard to love,
when you hate to let things go.
and a dream will remind you,
you only have so much control.
though its been 2 years
it doesn't seem so long ago
cause I still see your face,
in picture frames and people I don't know.

"And I could live without you
but only if I had to
and now I have to.
So that's what I will do.

"The sun came up and melted all the snow
and the spring air smelled so sweet just like I used to know
and your brother came back in the middle of the storm
So you don't have to count on frozen fingers anymore."