Veterans Day will never be quite the same for me from this year forward. It was exactly one year ago when my daughter, Christina, and I attended a meeting of the newly formed Northwest Professional Dog Trainers Association. As everyone was introducing themselves and their training businesses, we had our first exposure to Dr. Michelle Nelson the founder of the non profit organization, Paws Assisting Veterans, or PAVE.
We have all had defining moments when we unknowingly took a step in a direction that would impact our lives forever. If we had not gone to that meeting we would might never have had the pleasure of knowing Michelle, let alone share a passion for her mission.
I don’t believe we even spoke to each other at that gathering. However, a few weeks later I read that she was looking for trainers that might be interested in helping to raise up young dogs for the program. I was somewhat familiar with how a service dog organization operates as I had recently done some work for another group, providing foundational training on two dogs for children with disabilities. In a moment that altered my life as a dog professional, I contacted PAVE about volunteering my services.
After making a home visit, Michelle ok’d our family to take one of her dogs. One thing led to another over the following months as we integrated helping to train PAVE dogs into our regular board and train business. Naturally, this commitment added to my workload, but it was gratifying to be able to contribute to such a worthy cause. My husband being a veteran himself from the Vietnam era, was totally supportive. Thus, I knew I had the green light and could deepen my involvement with no complaints!
I fully enjoyed getting to know Michelle and the others surrounding the organization. It stretched me as a trainer to learn how to teach dogs to perform the necessary tasks for the veterans as well as pass the Assistance Dogs International testing. I found it challenging yet fun and exhilarating for both myself and the dogs. All training is done using positive reinforcement and “shaping”, which requires that you capture moments of desired behaviors and reward them. So exciting! I found that I was even happier working with my regular clients as well. After twenty years of training here on our property I suppose, looking back… the daily routine had gotten a little stale.
This past summer as I was enjoying training all my canine students, it occurred to me that there had to be more to training service dogs and that a piece of the puzzle was missing. I said a little prayer that if I was going to donate my time and effort to this endeavor, that I do it for the right reason and not just because it gave me a thrill, made me a better trainer, or put another feather in my cap.
My prayer was answered when I went to work at PAVE’S 2014 camp and graduation in August and experienced the bigger picture. It was there that I encountered the reason for all of the hard work and dedication. It was there that I found Dr. Nelson’s passion. It was no longer about anything else besides the veterans who had served our great nation and were now standing before us wounded and broken, hoping that they would find new life with the dogs that had been prepared and specifically chosen for them. They were the missing piece of my personal puzzle.
In between camps and formal graduations we continue working with our service dogs in training each day. If a dog completes its training and there is a likely veteran prospect on the list, Dr. Nelson begins the investigative work to assure a perfect match. In all cases the veterans are referred by the doctors at the Veterans Administration. If the needs, personality, and lifestyle align with an available dog then PAVE begins the arduous yet wonderful project of training the veteran to the dog on an independent basis if the veterans are local and available.
The majority of the veterans for which PAVE supplies service dogs are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Now I see the face of this horrific affliction. The average citizen has no idea what PTSD looks like. You may have a general idea but nothing concrete unless you have seen it up close and personal. Just imagine not being able to go into a grocery store and having to survive on drive-through food for sustenance. How heartbroken would you be or how inadequate would you feel if you couldn’t attend your children’s school functions? Try to picture not being able to sleep at night due to nightmares and flashbacks. What would it be like to feel hopeless and disabled? Often the veterans have traumatic brain injuries and other physical problems in addition. And, these special men and women are the ages of my own healthy grown sons with families of active youngsters. That was a very influential element for myself.
There are ways that we all can help… the dogs we train, the time we devote, the funds we donate. Not everyone inspired to help us will have the opportunity to actually come into contact with a disabled veteran with PTSD because the victims are hidden among us in society trying not to be noticed. I feel privileged to happen to have a talent through which I can be one of the few that can literally touch them and aid them in finding support and healing with a service dog. To me they now have names and faces to attach to the pain they suffer. However, thanks to PAVE they now have hope.
Studies indicate the beneficial effects on our veterans when paired with a trained service dog. The PAVE dogs can wake a veteran from a nightmare, nudge him or her when spacing out or in a panic state, provide a barrier against crowds in public, and many more tasks. They go everywhere with their veterans and give them the confidence to mingle in society. PAVE is currently part of a study by Kaiser Permanente measuring the benefits of these highly trained dogs for the veterans in our program and others like it.
It has only been a year, but one I will never forget and I hope there are many more. In ways it has been difficult to become aware of the plight of so many of our returning war heroes, but in a big way I feel so humbled to know some of them personally and be able to do a small part toward their recovery.
Thank you Paws Assisting Veterans and Michelle Nelson for making me part of your team! And thank you to all of our brave men and women this Veterans Day!
If you would like to be part of our extended team with your donations, prayers, and continued support please get involved by following Paws Assisting Veterans on Facebook and/or sending your tax deductible contributions to:
Paws Assisting Veterans
P .O. Box 871
Cornelius, Oregon 97113
PAVE was also featured in the Oregonian last week. You can read the article here.