This past Saturday, August 23rd, Paws Assisting Veterans (PAVE) held their summer 2014 graduation, pairing their trained service dogs with veterans in need. This particular class was comprised of individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among other challenges and was part of a study funded by the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Community Benefit Initiative. The study scientifically explores the effects service dogs have on veterans with PTSD.
PAVE, a Portland, Oregon area non-profit organization founded by Dr. Michelle Nelson, is dedicated to training service dogs for veterans with mental and/or physical disabilities. Dr. Nelson had been a service dog trainer for ten years when she was inspired by her own son’s wartime service in the Navy. She then founded PAVE to focus on the growing need for service dogs among veterans. An enormous amount of energy has gone into this extraordinary mission that she created and is now leading as PAVE’s head trainer and director.
The Service Dogs:
PAVE gets its dogs from a variety of sources. They have a partnership with Guide Dogs For The Blind which donates canine candidates that may not be 100% suitable for a blind person, yet can be trained to be amazing service dogs for other physical or psychological challenges. Breeders sometimes donate a likely prospect and rescue dogs with the appropriate temperament and aptitude are also considered for the job. PAVE currently has two rescue dogs in training.
Each dog then undergoes approximately two years of training to prepare him/her for every aspect of fulfilling the needs of a disabled veteran. The service dog is to accompany the veteran everywhere, behaving in a mannerly fashion. It is taught to redirect the veteran during a PTSD episode, wake he or she from nightmares, and provide a buffer when in a crowd. Other physical tasks are trained as needed such as opening doors and picking up items from the floor.
Finally, each dog is carefully paired with the veteran for which it is best suited. Taken into account are the lifestyle of the veteran, the type of disabilities present, and the personality and strengths of each individual dog, to name a few.
All of the trainers who work with PAVE dogs are professional dog trainers who are dedicated to the cause. They take the dog(s) into their homes and accustom them to every conceivable situation as well as train them for the required tasks and appropriate behavior. They include the dog in all of their day to day outings. Thus, you may see a PAVE service dog in a doctor’s office, grocery store, or movie theatre.
Most of the veterans seeking a canine for support apply to PAVE based on a recommendation from a doctor at the Veterans Administration. The PAVE organization carefully screens each candidate and will often travel to do a home visit prior to final approval. Certain criteria must be met. The veteran must be able to take the dog to work if they are employed, for example. Most important however, is that the veteran be committed to the responsibility of being the caretaker of this highly trained animal and to the process of learning and follow through. To prepare for this new life, he/she must attend an intensive training camp for two weeks where they learn every aspect of working with a service dog.
The recent graduates were all veterans who were required to travel to Portland to attend camp held at Portland Community College, Rock Creek. They stayed at a local hotel and reported to class each day for two weeks. They were joined with their new best buddy and friend the first day and from that moment on, took ownership of the well being of their four legged partners and all the necessary learning on their own part.
Training for the veterans included lectures on dog learning theory, care of the dog, positive dog training concepts, plus the crucial hands on training. The veterans had to pass a final written exam as well as the all important Public Access Test based on Assistance Dogs International.
The graduation this past Saturday was the culmination of the comprehensive and demanding past few weeks. The Paws Assisting Veterans organization, the volunteers, the audience in attendance, and the veterans themselves were all overwhelmed with the depth of dedication and caring displayed by all for each other. What an amazing and worthwhile endeavor! This trainer has found this opportunity to “give back” the most rewarding of her career!
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