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Local group looking for dogs to help military veterans

POSTED: August 10, 2014 12:00 p.m.

A local organization is looking to team up veterans with dogs that help them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary 12 Georgia is starting the Clever Companions Project to train service dogs for veterans dealing with PTSD. The timeframe to train the dog varies from as little as four months to more than a year, and the goal is to have the first dog placed into a home by next summer.

Experts think that PTSD occurs in about 11-20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and about 30% of Vietnam veterans, according to the National Center for PTSD.

PTSD can be exacerbated by the loneliness some veterans feel after leaving the service, said Becky White, with Heavenly Tails Dog Training in Dacula, who will provide the training.

"They have been so tightly knit with their community of service people," said White, who will train the dogs for Clever Companions Project. "When they come back and don’t have that anymore, it’s quite an adjustment."

The group will get dogs from area rescue groups and the Barrow County Animal Shelter. The dogs will then be taken to Auburn Veterinary Hospital, where Dr. Stuart Rackley is helping sponsor the program.

Beth Forrest, first-vice president of the AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary 12 Georgia, said she came up with the idea for the program because there is not a similar one in Barrow County. A website will be setup to provide information to veterans and allow them to fill out an application.

The program is starting in Barrow, but Forrest said she’s hopeful it’ll grow beyond that.

"I wanted to be able to do my job to support veterans and help save animals," said Forrest, who works as a vet tech for Auburn Veterinary Hospital.

White said a service dog provides an invaluable resource to veterans. She has seen it help a veteran in Alabama who would not leave his home because of his PTSD.

"Now he is back in college and rides the bus back forth with the dog," she said. "He just feels at ease because he knows someone has his back."

Temperament testing is the first step in deciding if a dog is fit to become a service dog. That testing involves making sure the dog is comfortable around other animals.

"You want to get it out in a traffic situation, riding around and walking on sidewalks to make sure it’s not going to bolt and get to skittish in traffic," White said.

Environmental testing will determine if the dog is well-mannered. The next training is tailoring the dog to handle specific symptoms the veteran has. That could mean notifying the veteran that someone is behind them, or providing them comfort by sitting next to them if they are crying, White said.

Once a dog is placed in a home then White will continue working with the dog and veteran for up to a couple months.

"I’ll be working to make sure that they become a team," said White, who has been a trainer for nine years.

Therapy dogs and service dogs are there to help people cope, but with therapy dogs there is more control over their environments. Therapy dogs visit places such as nursing homes and hospitals.

"Service dogs are a little more critical because they have to be able to focus on vets (or other owners)," Forrest said. "Whether it’s PTSD or they’re blind, they have to be able to pay attention and be aware of their owner of all times."

The first dog for the Clever Companions Project will likely undergo a broad range of training while other dogs will be trained for a particular veteran. Forrest said she’s hopeful the program will gain steam.

"I’m very excited to start something that’s going to benefit people," she said.



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