Service Dogs for Veterans Returning Home from Iraq and Afghanistan
Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us was established by Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) in 2006 to provide service dogs to combat veterans returning home from Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) who have suffered a physical injury, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever puppies are raised and trained in prison from the age of eight weeks until they are ready to be placed with a veteran. Once the pups reach twenty months of age, they are tested to determine their suitability for formal training by PBB. When a puppy is matched with a disabled veteran, final training continues specific to the veteran’s needs.
Currently, approximately fifty service dogs are being raised in five of our six prisons. Our service dogs not only learn the eighty-five plus commands that are standard in the industry (i.e. retrieving objects, turning on and off lights, opening doors so a wheelchair can pass through), PBB has also created additional commands to assist our wounded warriors returning with PTSD and TBI.
In August of 2012, Tobi was paired with Captain Robert Charles, an Afghanistan war veteran who suffers from PTSD, a life-altering condition that is characterized by panic attacks, severe depression, memory loss, nightmares and fear of public places. Tobi, a beautiful black female Labrador retriever, has been trained to wake Robert from nightmares and to alert him of approaching strangers, always “watching his back.” When Tobi lies at Robert’s side, she will sit up if someone approaches, thus lessening Robert’s fear of being in public spaces such as grocery stores or movie theaters. Additionally, Tobi responds to the command, “Block,” which Robert uses when he wants Tobi to stand between him and an approaching individual.
In March 2013, Robert and Tobi traveled from their home in Maryland to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility where Tobi was raised and trained, to meet and thank the women for their hard work and dedication in training service dogs for veterans. Robert and the puppy raisers shared dozens of stories about Tobi, ranging from her puppyhood in prison to her current life as a full-fledged service dog to Robert. The common bond connecting everyone centered around Tobi’s love and devotion to people, her ability to help heal emotional wounds, and how her presence alone encourages those around her to rise above their circumstances and live life to its fullest.
On average, PBB accepts only one out of every seven applicants and pairs only fifteen to twenty service dogs per year. In order to receive one of our dogs, a veteran must download our application (see link below), read through the criteria, and submit the application to the PBB administrative office for consideration. The application review process takes approximately four to six weeks to determine and applicant’s eligibility.
If selected, the veteran must participate in our two-week team training in New York. PBB pays for 100% of the travel and boarding costs associated with training. Over the course of the two weeks, each client is matched with a dog, learns the commands that the dog knows and learns how to care for the dog. About half of the team training is conducted from within one of the four New York State prisons where the veterans are able to learn directly from the inmate puppy raisers who trained their dogs. In order to graduate from team training, veterans must pass our Public Access Test to demonstrate that the client/dog match makes for an appropriate service dog team. Each graduate of our program returns to his/her home and family as a fully certified service dog handler, with paperwork, identification and a very special service dog that is trained in more than 90 commands.
PBB is a rigorous program and is accredited through Assistance Dogs International. We produce well-loved and well-behaved dogs and we make sure we make the best dog/veteran matches possible. PBB provides routine, extensive follow up with each of our graduates and retains ownership of the dog for the first five years to make sure each veteran/service dog pairing is effective. PBB also serves as a resource for the veterans in the years that follow, providing support, advice and feedback.