Here is an unusual dog-related question: What do abandoned dogs destined for euthanasia, military prisoners incarcerated at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, and wounded veterans from all branches of service have in common?
A unique and extraordinary human/animal bond that binds them together for a lifetime. One that PawNation is proud to celebrate this Veterans Day.
The link between these unwanted dogs and the military is a wonderful national organization called Canines for Service founded by a former U.S. Air force serviceman named Rick Hairston.
“We call it a triple win — rescue, rehabilitate and revive,” explains his wife, Pat, who works with him and acts as spokesperson for this unique program which, since its formation, has twice been awarded the prestigious Newman’s Own Award for innovative programs that support the military and their families.
The “rescue” process starts when the group scouts dog pounds and shelters looking for suitable canine candidates for training.
“Very often we have rescued dogs just days from being euthanized,” says Pat Hairston. “Once they have passed a basic temperament test and various veterinary evaluations, they are ready to be trained.”
Rewind to 1996 when Hairston, a longtime volunteer at a service dog organization in St. Louis, Missouri, moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. There was no similar organization in the area, so Hairston decided to start his own, training service dogs and pairing them with anyone who needed canine assistance.
So many of the applications came from wounded service men and women that in 2008 Hairston came up with the idea to create a special group within his organization called Canines for Veterans that would rescue dogs from animal shelters, team them up with military prisoners (who, in turn, would be instructed how to train them to be service dogs), and then pair them with wounded veterans.
For the military prisoners selected to train these dogs, it is considered a privilege that they have to earn. Their crime, whether it's petty larceny or murder, is irrelevant — it’s all about the dogs, as each prisoner is solely responsible for the dog assigned to him for the two-year program. They even share a cell.
“For those prisoners selected and specially trained to work with these dogs, it’s a wonderful form of rehabilitation as they are learning responsibility and life skills and simultaneously giving back to the military and society,” says Pat Hairston.
During their training, which is about 2500 hours, the dogs are taught over 90 tasks that include everything from loading a washing machine and emptying a tumble dryer, to turning lights on and off.
Each service dog is then carefully matched with a wounded serviceman or woman, who is then personally trained by the prisoner on how to relate to his or her new companion.
Leslie Smith, a retired army captain, served in Bosnia in 2001 and 2002 where she contracted a blood disorder that resulted in her left leg being amputated at the knee. She also lost the sight in her left eye.
Smith has been with her canine companion Isaac for three years. He has been trained to always stay on her physically challenged left side to assist with her balance and guide her throughout everyday tasks, both at home and when the twosome are out and about.
“He has brought a whole new level of comfort to my life,” says Smith. “He truly understands me. It is incredible how in tune we are with one another. I miss him even if he’s just gone to the groomer!”
Since being paired with Isaac, Leslie’s vision in her right eye has also deteriorated and she has now been declared legally blind. Consequently, she had to spend time without Isaac at Walter Reid Army Medical Center for further personal rehabilitation.
“I really missed him and my homecoming was so special,” she confides. “He just sat in front of me, taking everything in. It was almost as if he was thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got it. I’m going to be needed in a different ways now.’
“His intuition is uncanny. Previously, when we’d go for walks, he would be flush by my left side. Now, he’s taken it upon himself to be just one step ahead to guide me.
“Apart from his truly amazing skills, he has such a huge personality and can be such a ham. He knows when I am feeling down and will grab a toy and roll on his back and play just to make me laugh. And there’s no question, laughter is truly the best medicine.”
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This month, in time for Veterans Day, the organization announced the placement of its sixtieth dog. To celebrate, Carol Perkins, president of the well-known Harry Barker range of pet accessories (also headquartered in Charleston) and a longtime supporter of the organization, launched a special Canine for Veterans range of toys and treats, donating 40 percent of proceeds to the organization.
Service dogs are worth $40,000. That’s a lot of kibble. Dog lovers can celebrate working dogs like Isaac by contributing to this very special canine cause and simultaneously spoil their own pooches:
Learn about Canines for Service at http://www.caninesforservice.org/CCV.html
And visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/carolinacanines