“Today is a very special day for us at Dogs for Life,” said Shelly Ferger, DFL founder. “It’s a special day to recognize the devoted dogs, the dedicated donors, the valued volunteers and our special veterans, men and women who have given a part of themselves away fighting for our freedom.”
Ferger said that the number of Indian River County veterans applying for service dogs has increased from 19 in 2015 to 59 in 2017. Since 2002 DFL has trained 133 service dogs; 44 of those for veterans. They are currently supporting 34 teams, 10 more than last year, and have a wait-list of 19; 13 who are veterans.
“Over a period from six months to one year, applicants learn to communicate with their dog, they learn how to obedience-train and to task-train their dog,” said Ferger.
The dogs are eventually certified to perform an extensive variety of tasks, all geared toward helping people live independently. Examples include: alerting to a door knock, smoke alarm, alarm clock or telephone ringing; helping people balance on their feet or pulling them from a chair; tapping 911 emergency canine phones and handicap door buttons; helping owners suffering from anxiety, depression or panic attacks to feel safe in unpredictable environments; and waking owners from nightmares.
“Because of you there has never been a charge to our clients,” Ferger told the roomful of donors and supporters packing the organization’s Training Center, noting that the estimated cost varies but averages $18,000 for one year of training.
Service team graduates were presented with ID cards, certificates of training and Service Dog vests, which were swapped out for the dogs’ previous ‘in-training’ vests.
“I want to assure you that everything we’re doing here is 100 percent by the book. We would not be accredited by Assistance Dogs International if we did not do it right,” said Ferger. “When you have a dedicated person and you have the right dog, it works out to be a beautiful thing.”
At the conclusion of the graduation ceremony, Devon Williams and Christal Dedmon of the nationwide Quilts of Valor Foundation, which has donated close to 184,000 quilts to active service members and veterans since its 2003 founding, presented hand-made quilts to the veteran graduates and their dogs.
2017 DFL Awards were presented to: Richard and Jane Manoogian – Kathi G. Schumann Award; Kathi Schumann – Individual Philanthropist Award; Jeff and Suzi Gomez – Corporate Philanthropist Award; Curtis Carpenter & Dustin Tackett – Media Marketing Award; Jessica Jacobs and River – Service/Hearing Dog Team Award; Richie Keller and GiGi and Perry Martin and Sassy – Veterans Dog Team Awards; and the Chris Taylor Family – Volunteer of the Year Award.
The 2018 Team Graduates were: Al Cabral, U.S. Army and Coco; Mark Eaker, U.S. Marine Corps and Shadow; Tracey Higginbotham, U.S. Marine Corps and Tucker; Jessica Jacobs and River; Richie Keller, U.S. Marine Corps and GiGi; Perry Martin, U.S. Air Force and Sassy; and Joe Sperry, U.S. Army and Chlowie.