Molly, Charlie, Major, and Dakota have new human partners. The four dogs graduated from the Patriot Service Dog (PSD) program and their partners were handed the leashes for their new service dogs.
The dogs and their human partners had just completed an intensive week of training.
“The dogs know the commands from two years of training—but their human partners don’t,” explained Julie Sanderson to the dozens of people assembled at the ceremony at Belle Glade Country Club. Veterans receiving dogs represented four of the services: Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Founded in 2009 by Sanderson and Susan Bolton, PSD is a unique venture that involves dog breeders, inmates at the Lowell Correctional Institute in Ocala, volunteers in The Villages, and veterans for whom the service dogs become an indispensable part of life as well as their “best friend.” Over the past dozen years PSD has placed 50 dogs with four to five additional dogs in training at any time.
Training takes two years with primary trainers who are inmates at Lowell, assisted by Villages residents who help socialize the dogs, taking them to malls, restaurants and other places where the inmate trainers cannot go, so the future service dogs get used to crowds, children, and unfamiliar situations.
Golden Labs are often the choice because of their intelligence, personality, and ability to be trained. Most Patriot Service Dogs come from Country Goldens in Graysville, Tenn. The breeder donates a dog from each litter to Patriot Service Dogs.
Part of the training involves teaching the dogs how to assist their human partners with daily tasks as well as their emotional wellbeing. That ranges from daily tasks such as turning lights off and on, fetching medications or phone, to opening doors and protecting their partners from accidents and falls. Since some veterans may have trouble standing from a sitting position, dogs are trained for ‘bracing’—helping their partners to stand. PSD service dogs tend to be larger breeds; solid and muscular since their work is often strenuous and tiring. In all the dogs will understand some 85 different commands at graduation plus some special ones to meet the individual needs of their partners.
The human partners take on the responsibility of meeting the dog’s needs from grooming to veterinarian services. The dogs also require regular, daily exercise with lots of running and jumping. PSD guidelines recommend that only the human partner feed the dog to reinforce the bonding.
During the graduation ceremonies Jim signaled Major to lie down under the table. Major did his dog circles and settled down with his head on Jim’s foot. Although the two had known each other for only about a week, they had already bonded for life. The veteran’s family and home environment is important in service dog placement.
“We want to be certain that the family are all on board with the concept, that they are supportive,” said Mike Appelbaum, PSD Coordinator for The Villages. Veterans keep their service dogs for life. When the dog becomes too old for work, the partner and dog stay together.
To help defray the costs of maintaining the dogs, paying the veterinarian, and transportation most dogs are sponsored by an organization. Major and Molly were sponsored by Villagers for Vets. Dakota was sponsored by Ocala branch of the Fraternal Order of Eagles and Charlie from funds raised at the Strut Your Mutt event in Eustis. Businesses and individuals from the Central Florida area are also contributors.
A veteran named Joey says on the PSD website: “Patriot has almost got rid of my paranoia in public places. In fact, we are both enjoying exercising at the park now.”
Patriot Service Dogs saved my life. I will forever be a part of their family.
“Socializing a service dog is an amazing process,” according to Appelbaum. “It keeps me in tune with the progress the dog is making and it’s wonderful to see the dog grow as it’s education continues. It’s kind of being like a grandparent, you get to enjoy the dog, but you don’t have to pay for its education.”
While the veterans are happy to be the new partners with the dogs, the inmate teams who train them for two years are now missing their friends. At the graduation a letter from the trainers was read expressing their sorrow at the loss and how they felt very satisfied that their efforts had a positive effect on the community.
Veterans can get full information from the PSD website (https://patriotservicedogs.org/) along with the application process. “We recommend that veterans apply to several service dog organizations—with only five dogs a year coming through our system, we can’t guarantee a dog will be available to meet the applicant’s specific needs.”
On Friday of this week, Patriot Service Dogs placed “Tank,” a Bernese Mountain Dog, with the Nassau Sheriff’s Department as a Community Relations Ambassador. Tank’s job will be to provide comfort and relief to the 50 veterans in the Department as well as to community members, children, crime and accident victims.
“When the sheriff asked if we could train and provide a service dog to meet their requirements, we knew that Tank would be perfect,” Appelbaum says. “He will soon begin his job providing help and healing in the Nassau County-Jacksonville area.”