Dogs for Life: Helping returning veterans adjust

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — As dog lovers attest, the bond that develops between pets and owners can lift the spirit and calm the nerves.

Unconditionally devoted, dogs are frequently credited easing tensions just by an adoring gaze, wagging tail, or comforting snuggle.

 Studies now show that for servicemen and women returning home from the horrors of war, a canine companion may also represent the difference between a life of anxiety-ridden isolation and a healthy assimilation back into society.

 When Jim Taylor retired in 2009, after a 20-year career in the Army serving as a staff sergeant during Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, he did so suffering from hearing loss and post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

 Merely leaving the house could trigger a panic attack.

 “He got to the point where we couldn’t go out anywhere,” said Taylor’s wife Dawn. “If I went out by myself, he was anxious about when I would return and would keep calling me on my cell phone.”

 Fortunately, a lovable pug named Pia Pia has turned his life around, and today Jim Taylor is an enthusiastic spokesman for the Dogs for Life (DFL) Veterans Service Dog Program.

 Shelly Ferger, the group’s founder and executive director, and a team of dedicated trainers, have been training service, pet-assisted therapy, and companion dogs since 2002.

Last year, the group was accredited by Assistance Dogs International to certify veterans service dogs so that their owners may qualify for cost assistance from the Veterans Administration. Taylor and Pia Pia were the first team both trained and certified by Dogs for Life.

 “This is a fledgling program,” said board President Al Turner of the program. “We just started six months ago because we saw the need.”

 Turner and his wife, Vero Beach City Council Vice Mayor Pilar Turner, became involved with the DFL Off-Leash Dog Park about four years ago when the park’s land was in jeopardy of being sold.

 He and a small band of members raised enough money to buy the initial 4.5-acre parcel, and later another $100,000 to expand and further develop the property.

 Turner then set his sights on other aspects of the organization.

 “That’s when I really became impressed with Shelly Ferger and the work she was doing to train assistance dogs,” explained Turner. “The dog park is a great public facility, and I think it serves a need, but I think the greater benefit is helping people in the community.”

 Former Army Staff Sergeant Ben Humphries joined the DFL board in the spring and, as president of the Indian River County and State chapters of Vietnam Veterans of America, is enlisting the support of other veterans.

 “It’s such a worthwhile program,” said Humphries, who speaks with Taylor and Ferger at veterans organizations throughout the state.

 “We have so many veterans with PTSD, hearing loss and mobility problems. We want to help support the program and get the word out that it’s available for them. We also need to make the Veterans Administration more aware of the benefits of the program. These dogs help them with PTSD and serve as a sort of security blanket for them. Once the studies are truly completed, they’ll see that the cost will be minimal in comparison to other programs.”

 “A lot of us vets are reclusive; we don’t ask for help,” said Jim Taylor. “I would highly encourage any veteran that needs help to get in touch with Shelly. Pia Pia has changed our life. I know that others could have their lives changed too with a service dog.”

 Dogs for Life trains the dogs at no cost to veterans, with funding coming strictly from private donations, local grants, and a percentage of the Off-Leash Park memberships.

 To increase their training capacity, a capital campaign was recently launched to build a training facility on the property. Close to $200,000 has been raised already; enough to fund the first of a three-stage project which they hope will be completed by the end of 2012.

 “That may be a little optimistic on my behalf,” said Turner. “A lot will depend on the economy and the interest, but we’re pretty excited about what we’ve done so far. The need for assistance dogs for returning vets is far greater than our ability to train them at this point. I think it’s only going to grow.”

 Dogs are currently trained for task work at the owners’ home, which means they must be physically able to work with the dog. With the new facility, they hope to have rescue dogs fostered at night by local veterans, trained during the day at the center and eventually transitioned to disabled veterans.

 “Veterans just naturally want to help other veterans,” said Shelly Ferger. “As comrades they’re there to help each other. Without their support we wouldn’t even try to take on this veterans program; it would be too big for us.”

 Ferger has heard that Florida will be among states with the greatest number of amputees returning from the war in Afghanistan.

 “They want to be able to live on their own,” she added. “They’re younger and they want the independence. Veterans in the past have been over-medicated and haven’t had the therapy they need. Instead of taking an anti-depressant, a dog can help them to integrate back into society.”

 For the Taylors the transformation has been life-altering. The couple adopted the puppy from H.A.L.O. Rescue and brought it to dog trainer and veteran Jay Harris for obedience training. He then introduced them to DFL for service dog training.

 Once Pia Pia passed the service dog temperament tests – and Taylor received an okay from his VA counselor and two physicians – they breezed through ensuing training and tests with flying colors and became duel certified for hearing and PTSD.

 “When Shelly told me she could make Pia Pia into a service dog I was skeptical at first; pugs are traditionally a stubborn breed,” explained Taylor. “But she was persistent; she never said no. It’s an outstanding organization.”

 The dog helps in many ways, such as alerting him to doorbells and alarms, and can use a special canine phone to dial 911. She gets Jim when Dawn tells her to “Go get Daddy,” and once alerted her that he had fallen.

 Taylor becomes anxious when people get too close and, at his command, Pia Pia creates a circle around him, keeping people away at leash length.

 “What Shelly and her team did, the dedication they had, was amazing,” said Dawn Taylor. “They were very patient and understanding; they definitely knew what they were doing, working together to train Jim and Pia Pia so quickly and so attentively. We have a life now.”

 “We’re just happy to help veterans any way we can,” said Turner. “They sacrificed for the country and I think we should give something back to them.”

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