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Heal Hounds

A nonprofit is helping veterans regain shattered lives while providing second chances to dogs from shelters, rescues, and those needing to be rehomed.

Jennifer Zehnder
September 28, 2019

A mob of meerkats curiously track the man and canine combo on the other side of their enclosure. Toddlers shriek with delight at the scene as their parents and passersby meander through the zoo courtyard. Tonka, a German rottweiler, pays them little attention. His focus is on Dustin Bise at the other end of the leash. Tonka is reading his handler for signs of anxiety in the crowded area. It’s just one of his specialized duties as a Service Dogs of Distinction graduate. Before Tonka and their SDOD training, this seemingly ordinary family outing would not have been possible for the veteran Marine sergeant, who suffers from PTSD and high-blood pressure.

“A lot of my issues are being in public,” Bise shares. “You can’t watch everyone, so the unexpected worries me. Tonka helps me with that. He keeps me focused on him so I don’t think about my surroundings.”

Besides interrupting anxiety behaviors, reminding Bise to take his medication, and serving as a brace to steady his veteran, Tonka will spend several hours a day lying across his owner’s chest to quiet him and allow his blood pressure to come down.

SDOD co-founders and trainers Don Gardner and Marsha Wyatt bring 60-plus years of experience to their nonprofit founded in 2015. Gardner’s resume includes K-9 security, explosives, and drug detection training and handling, training dogs for the public, as well as breeding American pit bull terriers and British Labradors. In addition to her animal science and veterinary technician background, Wyatt has spent over 15 years in animal welfare and more than 30 years in the recovery community. She owns and operates a natural horsemanship facility, as well as equine psychotherapy business for alternative counseling. Part-time trainer Jennie Dolph completes the volunteer trio, which uses Assistance Dogs International training standards for its program.

“People simply don’t understand how difficult it is for many veterans to cope with their responsibilities, relationships, and loss of support from other military personnel after separation,” Wyatt explains. “Our program helps create a new normal for these veterans by engaging them through learning the training protocol, the introduction to and promise of a dog, attendance to weekly training, requiring accountability in order to receive a dog, and helping them depend on our program and the dog for relief and direction when PTSD and life are overwhelming.”

SDOD canine prospects come from people needing to rehome dogs, shelters, and rescues.
SDOD canine prospects come from people needing to rehome dogs, shelters, and rescues.

SDOD canine prospects come from people needing to rehome dogs, shelters, and rescues. According to Gardner, their organization looks for very calm, confident, and easygoing dogs that range between 50 to 80 pounds, are 1 to 3 years old, and have as few negative behaviors as possible. Understandably, dogs that show people or animal aggression, high prey drive, excitability, destructive behaviors, and phobias are avoided. Prospects must be well-socialized house dogs.

“We don’t care what the outside looks like,” he notes. “We care about the heart and soul of the dog.”

Sallisaw residents Steph Nelson and her husband Rusty chose to donate their Australian Shepherd, Ruby, to the program. The couple learned about SDOD from a pair of graduates they met in the community. A loved member of a multi-dog household, Ruby always seemed to be searching for more purpose and her “own” person, Steph says. Today, the dog and her veteran are proud graduates of the program, enjoying life to its fullest.

SDOD dogs perform many tasks depending on what the veteran requires. In addition to excellent obedience, they can provide balance, retrieve dropped items, push buttons for wheelchair doors, remind the vet to take medication, provide space in a crowded area, watch the veteran’s back, interrupt anxiety behaviors and nightmares, turn on/off lights, and carry items.

There is no cost of any kind for qualifying veterans, other than monthly maintenance of food, flea and tick treatment, and heartworm medication. SDOD provides the dog, collars, leash, crate, vest, bowls, wellness vouchers, and training equipment for each team.

To be considered for the program, veterans must supply a letter from their doctor/therapist and a copy of their discharge papers. They then have an oral interview and must pass a background check. If a veteran desires to bring their dog, SDOD will evaluate the dog and decide if it’s suitable for service dog training. The veteran then undergoes 4-6 weeks of pre-pairing training to introduce them to SDOD training protocol and to go over a multitude of dog health and care info, service dog responsibilities, legalities, and team expectations. During this time, trainers have the veteran work with different service dogs in training who are waiting for pairing. They look for suitable matches among the SDOD canine trainees, but if none are found, they will look outside the program.

Veterans must attend weekly training and must live within a 90-minute drive from Fayetteville or Rose Bud, Arkansas. The 12-14 months of training will include weekly attendance at SDOD training centers, regular outings with the trainers for socialization, exposure and periodic leisure activities with the dogs, such as the movies, bowling, and dining out. Each team receives weekly homework and will have regular tests that establish the team’s training accomplishments. Graduation only occurs when the dog and the veteran have met all training requirements. Certificates of accomplishments are provided for each training level, including Canine Good Citizen and Public Access certifications.

“Our program requires a high level of commitment on behalf of the veteran and their family,” Wyatt admits. “However, the results of the training and the dog will give the veteran their life back, a sense of pride, independence, and an ability to navigate their world without constant fear and anxiety.”

Service Dogs of Distinction