Thanks to amazing advances in trauma care, more military personnel are surviving what were once certainly fatal injuries and returning home to resume their civilian lives. Unfortunately, survival doesn't always mean normal, and an increasing number are physically or mentally disabled to the point of needing help with everyday activities. Colorado-based Freedom Service Dogs, Inc. offers exactly that.
According to FSD office manager and former board chair/member, Sue Hillson, the group was started in 1987 by Michael and P.J. Roche, after the ambulance Mike was working in was broadsided and rolled over, leaving him quadriplegic.
"His wife was a dog trainer and decided she could train their own dog to help with things like picking up objects off the floor, getting through doors and other tasks," says Hillson. "When her dog-trainer friends saw how much the dog did for Mike, they decided they could do the same, and that's how the organization got started."
All of the dogs are rescued from shelters, says Hillson. There is no puppy-raising or breeding. Dogs are not taken from the shelter until they're at least a year old, because x-rays for medical problems are not reliable until the dogs are 9 months or older.
"The dogs have to pass a pretty comprehensive exam before we take them," Hillson adds. "We first temperament-test the dog to make sure it's people-oriented. If they pass that test, we bring them back to our kennel and test their eyes and x-ray their hips and joints to make sure they're sound. Most of our clients don't have a lot of money to spend on medical care for the animal, so we try to eliminate as many problems as we can. If they pass the physical, they go into the training program."
Training takes 6 to 9 months, during which time the facility begins interviewing clients to see who might be a good match for a specific animal.
"Once we find a dog, we have the client come in for a meet-and-greet to see if they like each other," says Hillson. "If that goes well, we begin training. All dogs are trained in basic obedience and basic service dog skills, but every client has different needs, so we continue with that training. When it's done, the client comes back for a week-long placement class, where they learn how to care for and work with the dog, learn commands, and learn the rules for service dogs in public. Some clients have disabilities like slurred speech or problems using their hands (for giving out treats), and the dogs need to learn how to adapt to that. Once that's finished, we send the dog home with the client and then follow up to make sure the dog is working out for them. Once a dog is placed, we do life-time follow-up, because dogs are dogs--they forget things or learn new things they shouldn't know--and we help them with those problems when they come up."
On rare occasions, the dog/client relationship just doesn't work out, says Hillson, but there's always someone else who will be more suited. The good news: Once a dog leaves the shelter, it never goes back. If he doesn't make it as a service dog, FSD finds a home where he'll just be a pet.
There are times when there are too many dogs and not enough clients, and vice versa. "Because of that, we hired someone just to look for dogs for us," says Hillson. "We will accept dogs from people who want to donate them, but we're very particular about the breed. We've found that Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers seem to do best, so we tend to stay with those mixes. Right now, we have a border collie mix, which we normally wouldn't try because they're too hyperactive and too busy, but, for some reason, this dog missed out on those traits, so he's in our program and doing very well."
Due to the large number of wounded veterans returning from Iraq who need help with both physical and mental disabilities, FSD is concentrating its efforts on providing dogs for that population. The down side, says Hillson, is once the veterans return to their homes in other states, it's nearly impossible to do follow-up if they have problems.