Partnership works to find service dogs for veterans
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Dog trainers Suzanne Aaron and Tara Cotton saw many clients who had dogs they just couldn’t handle.
They would help the owners find dogs more suited to them, and try to rehabilitate and re-home the other dogs.
They live in nearby Pike County, where there is no animal control and there’s a significant problem with stray and abandoned animals.
“There were packs of dogs,” said Aaron. “It’s crazy.”
Three years ago, they founded Coco’s Cupboard, an animal rescue organization that primarily takes in animals that are surrendered by their owners.
Coco’s has teamed with the HELP Spay/Neuter Clinic in Newnan and sponsors a shuttle each month to take animals from Pike County to the clinic and back home again. The organization sponsors $2,000 to $3,000 in spay/neuter surgeries a month, Aaron said.
But at the heart of what they really do is “rehab dogs,” she said. They manage a dog boarding facility in Peachtree City, and own a dog training business.
As they took in and trained more and more dogs, it got harder to find homes for them. Particularly the pit-bull mixes. “A lot of them are bully mixes, and there is a prejudice, especially in this community,” Aaron said.
Originally they thought that, once they got dogs well-trained, humane societies would be willing to take them and adopt them out. But they found “in the rescue world, once you save a dog and rehab it, it’s nobody else’s problem but your own,” Aaron said.
Then Coco’s Cupboard volunteer Kathy Abell read about “Healing for Heroes,” a local organization that provides wounded veterans and service members – and those with post-traumatic stress disorder – with service dogs.
She contacted Healing for Heroes founder Piper Hill about working with Coco’s to find dogs for veterans.
Before Abell contacted Hill, Brianne Hendrix, whom Hill met at PetSmart, had been telling her she needed to contact Aaron.
“I was like – ‘Suzanne keeps coming up,’” said Hill. So she decided she should contact her.
Now, Coco’s Cupboard helps find service dogs for Healing for Heroes.
Hill said that, about a year after she founded Healing for Heroes, “I realized the dog piece of it was wearing me out,” trying to go to pounds and pick out the right dogs. Sometimes, she’d get a dog that ended up not being the right fit for a veteran, and she’d have to worry about finding it a new home.
“I knew I needed a nonprofit to pair with to do the dog piece. That was in 2010.”
Hill asked representatives with “every humane society that I knew or that I had ever been affiliated with if they wanted to be a partner with me.” She found that many rescues seemed to have preconceived notions about veterans and were wary about adopting out to them.
But not Coco’s. Their six-month partnership has been a perfect match. Pit-bull mixes make great service dogs. “They always graduate first in their class,” Hill said. “They’re incredibly loyal.”
In addition to training dogs that Coco’s Cupboard has rescued as service dogs, Cotton and Aaron go to local animal shelters to look for potential candidates.
What makes a good service dog?
“A lot of times it’s their focus,” said Aaron. “You can almost see their soul … they just have a look in their eye, a need, and a want.”
“They want a job,” said Abell.
“A lot of these rehab dogs need structure,” Cotton said.
And providing that is “what the veterans really need,” Aaron said.
“An independent dog is not really a good service dog,” Cotton said. A dog that might make a great pet in a busy household wouldn’t necessarily make a good service dog.
“We need almost a clingy dog,” she said. “The dogs have to be really in tune with their handler.” The dogs also have to remain calm in public.
They prefer dogs between ages 1 and 3. Under 1 is too young to train. They don’t want older dogs, because they want the dogs to have a long life with their veteran.
PTSD service dogs can be trained to do a number of things. They can wake their veterans up from nightmares, break them from anxiety attacks, remind them to take their medication or eat, and remind them when it’s bedtime. They can find lost objects, like car keys and cell phones. One dog was trained to take his veteran’s car keys away whenever he was in a fugue state.
Veterans can also use the dogs to brace against if they fall and need help getting up.
Some dogs are specially trained to smell seizures before they happen.
“It is amazing what they can do,” Hill said.
Before dogs are matched with veterans, they go through basic “K9 Good Citizen” training, including house training. They get socialized with the other dogs at the boarding facility.
And then the dogs get to choose their veteran. That’s how it works.
“The vets come in … they sit on a bench and the dog picks them,” Aaron said.
“It has been very successful. We haven’t had one that didn’t make a good match,” said Cotton. Sometimes, it’s not the match Cotton and Aaron would have made themselves. But “once you see them together, you realize that was the perfect match,” Cotton said. “That there is something magical that brings them together.”
That’s how it was with Jamie Harkins and Panda.
“He was going to take a different dog, and Panda went out in the yard. He forgot that dog,” Cotton said. Their eyes met, and it was love at first sight.
Panda ended up with Coco’s Cupboard because her owners had had a baby and were overwhelmed. “We knew she would make a good service dog,” Cotton said.
Once the pair is matched, the real training begins. There is a week of training, held at the Wyndham Peachtree City hotel, and the veteran continues working with the dog at home, for about four months. Then the team has to pass the K9 Good Citizen Test and the Public Access Test. By the time they’re finished, the dog and veteran have logged about 340 hours of training. Hill has had only one pair fail the test.
Harkins, a Marine scout sniper, has PTSD. “I gave up on myself,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t need a dog. What is that going to do?’ My mom called me and said, ‘Well, you’re going to get a dog today,’” he said. He’d never had a dog before.
“Then it was magic.”
“She ran up to me and hugged me and wouldn’t let go,” he said. Panda has done more than change Harkins life. She’s saved it, according to Harkins. “Without her, I would be dead,” he said.
Before he got Panda, he could barely leave his room. Now, he’s working at Puppy Tubs with Aaron and Cotton.
“I honestly never thought I would be able to work again,” he said. And he’s only had her for a few months.
While members of the public are used to “Seeing Eye” dogs, many are confused by other types of service dogs.
“I’ve had people come up to me … they’re like, are you blind?” Hill said. She’s so used to it “it doesn't make me mad anymore.” She tells her veterans to be prepared.
“People are going to come up to you and say, ‘You're not blind, why do you have a service dog?’”
Sometimes store personnel will be resistant to allow the animals inside. It happened recently to Harkins at a convenience store.
“There’s just no awareness,” said Hendrix, who is now training Precious, who will become Hill’s next service dog.
Service dogs, and even service dogs in training, are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are considered equal to a wheelchair or an artificial limb.
Harkins was asked what he would say to fellow veterans who are considering getting a service dog.
“Do it. It shouldn’t even be a question,” he said.
For more information about Coco’s Cupboard, or to volunteer, visit www.CocosCupboardInc.org.
For more information about Healing for Heroes, visit www.healing4heroes.org.