Twenty veterans commit suicide every day. It’s a sobering statistic that speaks to the need for additional support that some veterans require. It was that realization that prompted Bill Brightman, a U.S. navy veteran, to launch Service Dogs for Veterans (SD4V) in 2014.
From its outset, SD4V has pioneered a unique approach to pairing dogs with veterans in need. Under the watchful eye of highly skilled professionals, the veterans learn to train their own service dog through an intensive seven-month program. Further, all the dogs-in-training come from local shelters and rescue organizations, giving these abandoned canines a second chance and a loving home.
“Our immersion training format gives vets a much-needed purpose,” insists Jim Voss, executive director for the non-profit. “Plus, the resulting deep bond of trust between handler and dog makes for an inseparable team.”
As part of the process, both veterans and their canine partners are inevitably transformed. “Typically, our clients have been under treatment by the Veteran’s Administration for years but have not seen the improvements needed to live a more normal life,” Voss explains. However, after participating in the SD4V training model, program participants report up to a 60 percent reduction in life-limiting symptoms along with a corresponding reduction in medications. As for the dogs, they gain new purpose as a loved and valued companion, helper, friend and family member.
Since the program launched, 16 companion dog teams and 48 ADA-compliant service dog teams have graduated from the program, with 22 additional teams currently in training. SD4V volunteer Mary-Ellen Gregory sums up the program’s importance like this: “The veterans that enter our program are broken shells, but with the help of their service dog, they leave here as confident individuals who have taken back their lives.”