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BluePath Service Dogs

Even from a distance, participants at BluePath Service Dogs’ annual Walkathon showed their support by walking with their furry friends during its virtual fundraiser.

Participants during the fourth annual fundraiser were asked to walk with their dogs on their own and post pictures to the organization’s social media pages afterwards.

The organization, which started in 2016, provides service dogs to children with autism. Sixteen children across the Hudson Valley area have received service dogs since its inception, which are trained to provide safety, companionship and independence for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Participants convened on Zoom for a brief kickoff hosted by CEO Jody Sandler, Vice President of Training Programs Caroline McCabe-Sandler and Vice President of Marketing and Development Michelle Brier. They read to the crowd of over 50 virtual participants success stories from families who watched their children’s lives improve with the aid of a service dog.

Brier read a story from autism mom Nancy Flaherty, who shared how her daughter Caitlin’s service dog Chester saved her from bolting, a common occurrence for individuals on the spectrum who tend to wander off or run away.

“Chester gives our family the courage to stand up to autism,” said Flaherty. “There is no price to attach to a parent’s peace of mind that comes with an autism service dog.”

Purchase resident Kim Rosenbaum has also seen the significant impact a service dog has had on her 15-year-old daughter Lindsay. In a phone conversation, Rosenbaum describes how her dog Autumn has helped the whole family.

“Autumn’s actually been great, because she’s not only helped Lindsay, but we have three other kids, and another dog and if someone’s upset, she can sense that and help,” she said, “so she’s actually done amazing for everyone in the family.”

Autumn has gone on vacations with the Rosenbaum family, to Broadway shows and to yoga classes, which has given Lindsay more confidence to be out on her own, according to her mom.

In a time of social isolation, Autumn has played a greater role in helping Lindsay cope with uncertainty.

“My other kids can talk to their friends online, or call each other, and Lindsay is pretty much nonverbal.” she said. “It’s been challenging having her being isolated at home, and Autumn takes care of her and gives her something to do.”

The Walkathon comes at a time when nonprofit organizations, like for-profit companies, are suffering financially due to the pandemic. Brier believes the key to survival for smaller nonprofits is to keep their donor bases intact, which BluePath Service Dogs has been striving to do.

“We use a lot of data to drive our decision making and so we’ve tried to be really smart on how how we’re fundraising and how we’re supporting the community that supports us,” she said.

She has this advice for keeping nonprofits afloat:

“For anyone who supports a nonprofit, if you can give, please do keep giving to the organizations you care about because they need you.”

Service Dog Changing Lives

Middle school can be tough for anyone, but it was particularly challenging for Tabitha Bell. Muscular dystrophy had weakened her muscles to the point that it was challenging to walk at school without the help of friends. Sometimes they’d leave her standing next to a post and run off without her.

“When I tried to walk a few steps, I would just fall,” she says. “People really didn’t notice when I would be missing for a while.”

By the time she was in eighth grade, she’d had a spinal fusion and two orthopedic surgeries to help her walk. But the muscles in her feet had atrophied so much that she could only walk on the sides of her feet, which was “super painful.” She would lose her balance when trying to use a cane, walker, or crutches.

“My parents and I were accepting that I may have to be in a wheelchair soon,” she recalls. “My whole body was just so weak that I couldn’t really take too many steps without anyone’s help.”

Then the family learned about a specific type of service dog: “balance-and-brace” dogs. They invested about $20,000 in a German Shepherd Dog named Sunny who was privately trained for the work.

It took a little time for the two to figure out how to work together. Initially, Tabitha fell a fair bit. Then one day, she stepped off a curb without needing to grasp her mother’s hand. At her next doctor’s appointment, she walked—barefoot—down the long hallways at the hospital to the amazement of her orthopedic surgeon. “He was calling out all of his colleagues and he’s like, ‘Look at her! She used to not be able to walk with shoes on by herself!’ I was walking with Sunny, but I wasn’t having another human helping me.”

Thinking of his other patients, the excited doctor asked how much it would cost to buy and train a service dog. When she told him, he deflated, saying none of his clients would be able to afford it because of their steep medical bills, and health insurance doesn’t cover service dogs.

“That got me thinking,” Tabitha says. Work toward the organization’s first placement started after Tabitha’s surgeon mentioned a girl her age with a soft bone disease who could benefit from a service dog. Tabitha and her friend Morgan Kane organized fundraisers at their school. AT&T matched half the funding for a dog, a Labrador Retriever named Atty. It was a resounding success. “Now she’s walking and not in a wheelchair anymore,” Tabitha says.

Since then, by hosting fundraisers like concerts and fun runs, Pawsitive Pawsibilities has raised over $130,000 to purchase, train, and donate dogs to people with disabilities, ranging from a young military veteran with PTSD to a girl who needed a hearing-   assistance dog and a first grader with a diabetic-alert dog.

“It’s really amazing to see how they get their life back,” she says. A key aspect of Pawsitive Pawsibilities is engaging children in fundraising through the program “Puppy Paws.” Tabitha’s pediatrician mentioned that for birthdays and holidays, her children ask for donations rather than gifts; if they host a lemonade stand or bake sale, it’s for charity. Inspired by that concept, Tabitha developed ways for Pawsitive Pawsibilities to offer online and in-person support at schools to help kids fundraise with bake sales, lemonade stands, and garage sales. While helping a child get a service dog, the students learn about the role of service dogs and the joy of giving back.

In one instance, a second-grade classroom in Idaho held a “Pennies for Paws” fundraiser and donated over $200 in pennies to the organization to help a first grader get a diabetic-alert dog named Curly.

“They got to Facetime with the little girl and got to see pictures and videos of when the dog was working with her,” she said. “It was really great to connect them with that. … And it’s really fun because they all love dogs.”

Now Tabitha is 19 and studying to become a child psychologist at University of California, Berkeley. She volunteers at an elementary school with her new service dog, Nox, another German Shepherd Dog. (Sunny is retired and “living the good life” at home with her parents.)

She and Nox are a hit at the school. Many teachers create “Puppy Paws” projects in their classrooms, so Tabitha brings Pawsitive Pawsibilities coloring books, a banner students can write on, T-shirts, little notebooks to track their transactions, and receipt books so if they receive a donation, they can send it to Tabitha and she’ll generate an official tax receipt. “They can learn about what service dogs are, but also learn about what service is and what giving back to the community is in a fun way,” she says. “We try to make it as fun as possible for them.”

Tabitha said she’s grateful to her mother, Jennifer, for helping her with Pawsitive Pawsibilities—particularly with finances, since she’s an accountant. Naturally, her mother is incredibly proud of her.

“My daughter inspires me every day,” she says. “It is humbling.” Tabitha also inspired her high school. When her private school wouldn’t allow her to return for ninth grade with a “pet”—despite the fact that service dogs like Sunny are legally permitted at schools and other public places under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—the family opted not to fight it. They moved to Salt Lake City where Tabitha’s high school campus was huge. But she gradually built the strength to cross it with Sunny by her side.

“She and Sunny had a huge impact on her high school,” Jennifer says. “Watching her learn to use a dog and watching the dog work, watching him get something off a printer … it became obvious that life was different for her with Sunny than before she had Sunny.”

Rick Reigle, DPT, physical therapist with Neuroworx, a physical therapy organization in Salt Lake City, started working with Tabitha when she was about 15 years old. He helped her learn to work with Sunny to avoid obstacles like curbs and cracks in the sidewalk. Later, when she was preparing to leave the state for college and to get her own apartment, they practiced how to use Nox to help get off the floor if she fell alone at home.

He’s been impressed with how balance-and-brace dogs like Sunny and Nox can assist people with disabilities, and with the positive impact Tabitha had on the community—especially helping young adults with spinal-cord injuries get custom-trained service dogs through Pawsitive Pawsibilities.

“She didn’t accept certain things in her life, and she was able to make changes,” he says. “And she presented those changes to other people and she was able to make tremendous changes in their lives.”

Ty Brown, owner of Ty the Dog Guy, a dog-training company based in Salt Lake City, trained Nox as well as many of the service dogs placed by Pawsitive Pawsibilities. Typically, the dogs are about 18 months old and were bred for agility or conformation shows but didn’t quite show champion potential, so they arrive healthy and well-trained in obedience. The dogs live in a home with Brown or someone on his team during training that’s customized to the needs of their future handler.

“Working with an organization like Pawsitive Pawsibilities is really cool,” he says. “They find some amazing people that need real help, and it’s really neat to be able to have this overall experience with a lot of the folks that we’re working with.”

He also enjoys working with the dogs themselves, since they each learn such different skills, whether detecting blood-sugar fluctuations, assisting during panic attacks, or bracing to help with mobility.

“Pigs are smarter and monkeys are smarter. Cats are easier to live with. But there’s something so unbelievably incredible about the dog,” he says. “The amazing capacity they have for learning, combined with that desire they have for bonding with humans. … It’s so darn cool to have one creature that can do all these different amazing things and just love doing it.” Brown hopes his four young daughters will be like Tabitha when they’re older. “Tabitha really is a dynamo,” he says. “From a young age, she realized she had a lot to give to the world. I’ve never seen somebody work so tirelessly while also dealing with her own challenges to just selflessly create scenarios where she can raise money and get service dogs for people. It’s awesome.”

Molly And Her Service Dog

Two and a half-year-old Molly Chow is surrounded by a loving family of her mom Susan, dad David, and four siblings.

The couple moved to Medicine Hat from Vancouver in 2006 and made the decision to become foster parents.

They’ve been fostering for the last 14 years and their family has grown in a big way.

“And in that time we have adopted all five of our children and range in age from 13, 12, six, three and a half and two,” David said.

Molly arrived as a foster child when she was just five weeks old and was officially adopted by the family in June of this year. Susan says Molly was exposed to drugs and alcohol during pregnancy which has had a significant impact on her development.

“Delayed speech skills, she has sleep association disorder which means she doesn’t sleep at night, she has self-harm when she gets upset or dysregulated she will self harm herself by hitting herself or biting herself or hitting her head into the floor,” she said.

Wanting to improve molly’s quality of life, an idea came to the family by chance while out for a walk with their family dog.

David says usually walks wouldn’t go well or last long as Molly would either wander away or dysregulate.

“When we allowed her to walk our older lab she calmed down and was focused and instead of going 200 metres, we actually went 3 kilometres and she did very well and so that’s when we thought maybe a service dog would be of assistance to her,” he said.

The Chows researched and came across Aspen Service Dogs, who also trained Mulder the therapy dog used by Medicine Hat Police Service.

Now the Chow family is embarking on the journey of getting a service dog for Molly.

The pups were undergoing some training at city hall on Thursday

The dog selected as the best fit for molly will be trained for her needs and the family hopes the dog can prevent self-harm.

“So when she is having her dysregulated tantrums the puppy will help her calm down. She does wander away from the house or when we’re out in public so the puppy will be the one to help her or alert us if she is having dangerous play or dangerous wandering,” Susan told Chat News.

And even support Molly during the night, “For the sleeping part, we’re hoping that the puppy will calm her so when she does wake up she doesn’t hurt herself, the puppy will be able to be with her and calm her down so by the time we get there she’s not hurting herself.”

The service dog will live with the Chows while it spends the next year learning basic obedience, followed by a year of training for Molly’s needs.

By starting Molly with a young puppy, the bonding will begin right away according to Aspen Service Dogs breeder and team leader in Medicine Hat Natalie Gillespie.

“And they almost start helping right at the beginning even though they’re not fully trained yet, their little person will respond very readily to the fact that their pup is going with them and so they’re going too,” according to Gillespie.

But this peace of mind and assistance for the family comes at a cost.

A service dog is $10,000 dollars which includes training. Aspen Service Dogs are accredited and recognized by the Alberta Government.

To help offset some of the cost, the Chow’s friends at Midnight’s Trail are holding a fundraiser on Thanksgiving Monday.

Just in time as the chows are scheduled to welcome the pup into their family later this month.

The Cowboy Challenge benefit for the Chows is on Monday, October 12 at Midnight’s Trail.

There will be horse obstacle courses for kids, youth, and adults.

It also includes a barbecue, silent auction, pony rides, and beef on a bun supper.

Owner of Midnight’s Trail Jessica Tory says she met the family three years ago when their oldest daughter started coming out for riding lessons.

“When they realized that a service dog could be really helpful for her and there’s quite a huge expense to a service dog, we thought we’d like to help out as much as possible with that,” Tory said

Service Dog In Training

Stimpy crawls under a table outside of Eastway Hall, pawing gently at an orange peel a few feet away on the grass. The peel is out of reach. Mission failed. Lindsey Czopek, Stimpy’s owner, laughs.

For the past 11 months, Stimpy, a one-year-old chocolate lab, and Czopek have been almost inseparable. The pair are a part of Freedom Paws, a nonprofit organization at Kent State dedicated to training puppies to become service dogs.

“I’ve taught him literally everything he knows, including his name,” Czopek said.

Czopek, a junior zoology major, is the president of Freedom Paws at Kent. She’s had Stimpy since he was eight weeks old and has been training him every step of the way.

“The best time to train them (the dogs) is definitely (when they are) zero to six months (old). They’re like kids; they’re like a sponge,” Czopek said. “You can teach them everything at that age and they just know it.”

Freedom Paws puts a focus on preparing its service dogs in training [SDIT] to handle any situation with confidence and obedience. In order to teach this to Stimpy, Czopek had to get creative.

“Literally, from eight to 16 weeks, I was taking him to stores, I was banging on pots and pans, I was falling down the stairs … anything he could possibly see in his life, I was trying to mimic,” she said. “Because if they don’t see it in that time, they’ll be afraid of it.”

Eventually, Stimpy will learn more than 50 commands, but for now he’s practicing basic dog commands used in everyday life, Czopek said. These include commands like sit, down and leave it.

“In his later life, he’ll know so many,” Czopek said. “He’ll know how to hit a handicap button, how to pick up keys, but we can’t teach them that, because if we do it wrong then their future person is going to have to redo it.”

Stimpy is currently in the first phase of his training process to become a service dog. Everyday, he and Czopek are working toward the goal of achieving phase two, advanced training, and eventually phase three, which is working as a service dog full-time.

Czopek explained that most of the puppies in the program won’t graduate from phase one until they’re at least a year old.

“I will say, the average is 14 to 16 months and he (Stimpy) just turned 12 (months),” she said. “So I should have him for two to four more months.”

In advanced training, Stimpy will be assessed to determine what type of service dog he’ll become upon graduating the program.

“We kind of specialize a dog based on what they’re good at,” Czopek said.

According to Kent State’s Center for Student Involvement, Freedom Paws has graduated puppies to become “service dogs, skilled companion dogs, hearing dogs, diabetic alert dogs, emotional support dogs and facility dogs.” The program also helps with seizure alert dogs.

Czopek predicts Stimpy will be a diabetic alert dog.  “I only say that because diabetic alert dogs are trained to detect high or low blood sugar,” she said. “That’s through scent training and he has the best nose of any dog I’ve ever known.”

Once the dogs pass advanced training, they are matched with a person accordingly.

“We’re not trying to change their personalities,” Czopek said. “We just want them to have something to work for.”

For a while, coronavirus added some unexpected challenges in raising a service dog. In March, when Kent State moved to remote learning forcing some students to return home, Czopek brought Stimpy with her.

Czopek said the first two weeks back home allowed her to have a more personalized, constant training experience with Stimpy.

“Then, quarantine came,” Czopek said. “He was obsessed. If I left the room, he would lose his marbles … He’d start screeching … I realized we had spent so much time together … he needed me to be OK.”

Though this was only a matter of circumstance, Czopek understood that Stimpy needed to be able to socialize with other people besides her and her family.

“The coronavirus made it really hard for these guys, because for practically three months they couldn’t be in public,” Czopek said. “I wasn’t going to the store. I wasn’t going anywhere and neither was he.”

Besides being around other people, one important part of training an SDIT is to make sure they’re able to be around other dogs.

At Kent State, Stimpy is one of seven puppies in the Freedom Paws program. He interacts with the others quite often.

Sometimes, the dogs will get to play at the dog friendly park on campus. This gives the raisers a chance to spend time with one another, as well.

“It’s nice to have a group of people who understand,” Czopek said. “We all go through the same struggles, successes and everything.”

Although it might not always be easy, Czopek admits that she’s formed a strong bond with Stimpy, as well as with her previous SDIT, Georgia.

“It’s not all cute puppies and everything,” she said. “I promise you, they have their bad days, but the good outweighs the bad.”

Czopek said in the 11 months of raising Stimpy so far, one of her favorite parts has been watching him learn.

“With him, I have seen his firsts,” she said. “I saw the first time he had to walk up a stair. I saw the first time he ever barked. I saw so many of those firsts.”

Czopek and Stimpy will part ways in the coming winter months, but she hopes that his future person will reach out by sending occasional pictures and updates.

“You’re heartbroken when they leave,” she said. “But, you would never not do it again, you know?”

In the future, Czopek hopes to eventually raise another service dog. As a junior looking for internships, she might hold off for the time being due to her busy schedule, but her love of dogs remains strong.

“As much as I’ve changed their lives, they have been such a life changer for me,” Czopek said. “They are my little best friends.”

Service Dog Denied

Three disabled veterans with ADA trained service dogs say they were kicked out of the same bar and restaurant in Port Orange twice.

The owner has since apologized but as WESH 2’s Claire Metz reports, the veterans are angry and more than disappointed.

“I tried to show them his certificate– that he was actually a service dog not just a pet,” Stephen Harmon said.

Stephen Harmon is a disabled veteran with PTSD and other health issues and his service dog Major has been a lifesaver.

Harmon said he was stunned Friday when an employee at the Port Hole told him there were no dogs allowed.

“I was crying because I was just so hurt that someone would actually do this to a veteran,” Harmon said.

Harmon’s dog was actually trained by Alexandra Clark through the local nonprofit organization K-9 line.

Port Hole General Manager Mike Knight says the business has had a no dog policy but admits staff is not educated enough about service animals.

“We plan to change the environment of the restaurant to where we will accommodate service animals,” Knight said.

Knight says he comes from a family of veterans and that the business would never deliberately disrespect them. He says he welcomes them.

“I can’t apologize more than I am today,” Knight said. “We offered to do some fundraisers and be educated by their organization.”

The veterans said though they appreciate Port Hole will welcome service dogs going forward and that the bar-restaurant regrets the incident.

However, they say it doesn’t change how they felt when it happened to them.

MTSU’s Police Dog

For MTSU Police K9 handler and patrol specialist Zachery Brooker, the loyalty he receives from his K9 Bobby “can’t be compared.”

This month marks the anniversary of the dog’s first year of service for the campus police department. Bobby and Brooker have been “very fortunate to have a really good first year” and the other officers “love having Bobby here,” Brooker said.

Bobby is a 2-year-old German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix. Brooker, originally from Michigan, joined the MTSU department in May 2017. He had been a member of the military and graduated from the Walters State Police Academy before meeting Bobby, but K9 training was “seriously the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

In addition to the dog’s capabilities of tracking others and alerting to the presence of illicit substances, the K9 adds an important safety aspect to the community: suspects are more compliant because of Bobby’s presence, and he can “defend and protect both officers and civilians,” Brooker said.

He encourages the other officers to get to know their furry coworker. They’re always welcome to play and spend time with Bobby because the stronger the relationships are between Bobby and his human team, the more successful they’ll all be in the field, he said.

The dog feeds off of everyone’s energy. “It’s what he lives for,” said Brooker, “that ‘good boy,’ that praise, and his toys, of course.”

One winter night, Bobby’s keen sense of smell and training helped to safely reunite a child, wandering out in the cold, with his mother. Most recently, he tracked down and apprehended a suspect.

Bobby also has helped the Murfreesboro Police Department and the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.

Brooker’s job doesn’t stop when he clocks out. Bobby comes home with him. The dog’s lifestyle is like that of an athlete’s: healthy treats like carrots and apples, hydration, rest and recovery and plenty of training and exercise. Brooker starts each morning by taking Bobby out for a 30-minute game of fetch.

Being the department’s sole K9 handler also means long hours at work.

“There are days when it’s tough, you’re tired,” said Brooker. “There’s been more times than not with him where because of his capabilities, he’s had to stay late. It’s always worth it to see the officers’ reactions to him doing his job well.”

Bobby has been out to several campus events where people “love on him,” and all of his interactions have been positive, Brooker said.

“We work really hard together, and we do it for the campus community,” said Brooker. “I can’t express enough that it’s for them. This department really cares about the community it serves.”

Autism Service Dogs

Over the last year-and-a-half Kim Rosenbaum has witnessed firsthand the positive impacts that her family’s four-year-old Yellow Lab-Golden Retriever mix Autumn has had on her household.

But Autumn isn’t really a pet. She was trained and adopted by Rosenbaum from BluePath Service Dogs for her 15-year-old daughter Lindsay, the oldest of her four children. Lindsay is autistic, has been mostly non-verbal and like many others on the spectrum is prone to wandering and elopement.

However, Autumn keeps Lindsay anchored, whether it’s in a department store, a restaurant or anywhere else the family may go.

“It’s difficult for us to do activities as a family, and when I took Lindsay out, we were always worried about her safety because she tends to wander off, and yet having Autumn has allowed us to do more activities as a family,” said Rosenbaum, a Purchase resident. “And Autumn has really become Lindsay’s best friend. She’s been a wonderful addition to our family, particularly during this pandemic. Not only did she help Lindsay, but at some point, almost everyone in the family.”

BluePath Service Dogs founder Michelle Briar said the dogs are particularly effective for children who are smaller. The dog can more block or help guide a child to where he or she is supposed to go or to stay in place.

“Our dogs and kids are connected by a specially-designed tether system, and when the child goes to bolt, the dog anchors the child, and each dog has its own anchoring position, that they effectively stop that child from getting into a dangerous situation,” Briar said.

But a specially-trained service dog that can offer crucial safety, companionship and a chance at independence for autistic children and young adults takes resources. The Hopewell Junction-based BluePath Service Dogs, which was established in 2016 and has paired 16 people with a canine service companion, breeds and trains its dogs, which costs about $40,000 each, Briar said. Another 40 dogs are currently being trained, she said.

BluePath charges a relatively nominal fee of $1,200 for a family who is adopting a dog for a family member, she said. The rest of the cost must be raised through donations and fundraising events.

That’s why for the fourth consecutive year, BluePath was scheduled to hold its annual walkathon at FDR State Park in Yorktown on Saturday morning, Oct. 3. Similar to hundreds of other events, though, the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation and turned it into a virtual experience.

There will be a 15- to 20-minute online warmup and introduction and then participants can head out into their neighborhoods or wherever they feel most comfortable to complete one of three distances ranging from a half-mile to three miles, Briar said.

“We encourage everyone to go out and walk, and our theme is separately but together, and while at the event there’s varying distances that people walk at. It’ll be the same thing as the live, physical event,” she said.

Rosenbaum said since adopting Autumn in April 2019, the dog has helped Lindsay in multiple ways. Not only does she keep her daughter safe but also provides an important connection with other people. When she is out with Lindsay and Autumn, Rosenbaum said people seem to gravitate to them, ask questions and look to pet the dog. She said it helps her daughter with socialization and even verbalization.

“It’s been incredible,” said Rosenbaum, who will be participating in the virtual walkathon with her family. “We’re so thankful for BluePath and we like to support them any way we can.”

K9 Salute Team

The (MWDM) in South Lyon gives the canines that once served our country, troops, police and firefighters, along with therapy and service dogs, a proper sendoff. The memorial cemetery, first established in 1932 as a pet cemetery, was rediscovered and renamed in 2010 as the MWDM, and it has hosted services to honor the dogs since 2014.

The MWDM K9 Salute Team was at the memorial cemetery nearly every weekend from mid-May through October in 2019, honoring 17 fallen heroes with services that included missing-dog formations, a color guard, bagpipes, bugler, funeral flag, headstone and a personalized hand drawing of the deceased dog at no charge to the dog’s handler.

Until late June 2020, K9 Kaiser—an exceptionally large German shepherd, weighing 160 pounds—was one of 22 dogs on the MWDM K9 Salute Team. In ceremonies honoring dogs at the MWDM, Kaiser performed a howling salute, much like a 21-gun salute, that would resound and recognize the honoree being interred during a service.

Unfortunately, the MWDM K9 Salute Team has lost a few of its dogs, including Kaiser; to memorialize them, the team has hired Suanne Martin ’84 to sculpt a statue of Kaiser’s likeness, representing all the Salute Team dogs that have passed. The statue will accompany a granite wall which will bear the names of the MWDM K9 Salute Team dogs memorialized.

“I am beyond honored to be chosen as the sculptor for this important memorial project,” Martin said.

When Martin first attended K, she aspired to be a painter, until an art professor, the late Marcia Wood 55, encouraged her to take a sculpting class.

“I was intimidated, to be honest, but she pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Martin said. “Once I got my hands in clay, I never looked back.”

After graduating, Martin desired more training in anatomy to enhance her skills in sculpting life forms. She studied for three years at the Center for Creatives Studies in Detroit before she earned her master’s degree at the Pratt Institute in New York.

That training led to sculpting characters and figures that were later cast and used for magazine illustrations or put into production in the toy industry. She was also contracted by a studio to be one of the people sculpting portraits of the U.S. Constitution signers for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Later, as she owned dogs, they were natural subjects for new sculptures. First was a lean and muscular boxer; years later there was a French mastiff, which Martin described as a dream breed.

“Being in New York City, this huge, red, wrinkly puppy became a celebrity in his own right,” Martin said. “I made a lot of good friends through him.”

When her mastiff died unexpectedly after five and a half years, sculpting him was part of Martin’s grieving process. When she posted the end result on Facebook, friends and their acquaintances took notice. That garnered Martin attention on social media that allowed her to earn more commissions before connecting with Julie Fentner, who was Kaiser’s handler, and earning the job of sculpting Kaiser.

“It’s exciting,” Martin said. “This is the first outdoor monument sculpture that I’ve taken on all by myself. I’m not only creating the original artwork, but doing the molding and casting. This is not just me doing a piece to please one person. I want to honor all the canine officers, military dogs and service dogs under that whole umbrella. I want this to inspire a lot of people.”

The nonprofit Michigan War Dog Memorial so far has raised about $5,000 toward a $20,0000 goal to fund Martin’s project. Those interested in making donations toward the sculpture are invited to do so through Facebook or GoFundMe. If all goes well, Martin hopes to start the project in October and finish it around mid-2021.

“For the last six and a half years, Kaiser has brought joy and happiness doing therapy with veterans, seniors, mentally challenged adults, fire departments, police departments, rehabilitation centers, a few human funerals and many other places, as do many of the other MWDM K9 Salute Team member dogs,” Fentner said. “His ability to bring happiness to others knew no bounds. I am so honored that my boy Kaiser is going to represent the MWDM K9 Salute Team dogs and be memorialized himself.”

Veteran With PTSD

Service members who have survived combat and war zones often face challenges adapting back to everyday life. Many military veterans suffer from paralyzing effects from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One special group in Charlottesville is helping to change lives one canine at a time. SDV starts training puppies and then places the dogs with those in need when the dogs are about 2 years old.

After seven years in the Army, Michelle says adjusting back to civilian life has not been easy.  She tells 8 News, “For me, it’s like climbing Mount Everest every time I leave my house.”

Michelle was having trouble going out in public. Eventually, she was diagnosed with PTSD.

“For example, going to the grocery store is a task that I am not able to do. I am not able to go to Target. Wal-Mart, forget about it,” she explained.

Michelle, like many veterans, has gone through a list of treatments and therapies to no avail. But then she learned about Service Dogs of Virginia.  After about a year-long wait, she was paired with Dottie, a black Labrador retriever.

“My hope for having Dottie is that I am finally able to return to a normal life again. That I am able to have a sense of normalcy back in my life,” Michelle said.

But getting a service dog like Dottie is easier said than done. It costs approximately $40,000 over a two-year period to raise, train and place a successful service dog with a person in need. That cost is never passed on to the new owner.

“I do everything I can to raise funds. I do not pass on that cost to our clients. I write grants. We have individual donors. I get corporate sponsorships,” said Sally Day, Service Dogs of Virginia Director of Development.

Day says fundraising has been difficult, due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the organization is determined to continue the good work that they’ve been doing for over the past 10 years. She says “When the organizations began, they started with a waiting list because there was so much need.”

Michelle says that she hopes that by sharing her story other veterans will be inspired to ask for help. She reminds people that, “Not all wounds are visible.”

K9s For Warriors

 K9s for Warriors was founded in 2011 to provide service dogs to disabled American veterans. The dogs who are paired with veterans are meant to help them overcome PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and/or military sexual trauma. Since 2011, K9s for Warriors has rescued over 1,000 dogs and has had over 630 graduates of their 3-week Veteran Training Program become paired with a pup. The goal of the program is to empower their Warriors to return to a life of dignity and independence. Once in the program, a PTSD service dog is provided to the veteran at no cost. Pairing these individuals with service dogs provides them with a partner in a life-changing journey, not only saving the veteran but finding a forever home for a dog in need.

After serving time in the military, coming home and adapting to everyday life can be difficult for veterans. With a K9s for Warriors dog, veterans can gain the emotional means to repair their relationship with themselves, their families, and friends.

“With each graduate pair, we save two lives; we rescue the dog, the dog rescues the Warrior”

A perfect example of that is Greg Wells and his service dog Utah. Greg is a graduate of K9s for Warriors Class of 2015. Since graduating, Greg found a new purpose in life alongside Utah, becoming K9s for Warriors’ Program Manager.

Greg and Utah join Lisa Germani on Community Connect to talk about the life-changing effects that K9s for Warriors can have on the life of a dog and a veteran.

Service Dogs Support

People like John Dugas know how life-changing service dogs can be. Dugas, a St. Albert resident and the chairman of Courageous Companions, uses his own service dog, Bailey, to help him with mobility assistance and symptoms of PTSD.

Dugas is also a 30-year veteran who served as a combat engineer. Eventually, Dugas’ work life weighed on him to the point where, every day on his way home, he would pull into a gas station parking lot and sleep for 10 minutes.

“You’d put this mask on, I call it, to kind of hide what’s going on,” said Dugas.

“I found I just became a recluse in my own house, I would stay in my garage and wouldn’t engage anyone.”

After a doctor suggested he try working with a service dog, Dugas applied to the Courageous Companion program and was placed with his first dog, Mia, three months later.

Dogs play an incredible role in so many people’s lives. Sometimes, they’re even considered as best friends or part of the family. Service dogs, however, play another engaging role: as a support system for those who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as veterans and first responders.

Last weekend, Walk for Veterans, an event supporting veterans throughout Canada, gave its support to service dogs by donating its proceeds to Courageous Companions, a non-profit organization that provides service dogs to first responders, men and women in the military service, and veterans.

“This year, we’re putting (the proceeds) towards Courageous Companions so that people can get the dogs they need, because these (dogs) are so important. And this year especially, we wanted to do something that was centred around not only veterans but veterans and first responders,” said Chance Burles, Edmonton’s organizer for the walk.

“Out of all years, we saw just how important first responders are to our lifestyle and we wanted to really highlight that.”

Charitable initiatives like Walk for Veterans play a huge role in supporting organizations like Courageous Companions.

“It’s vets helping vets, help vets,” said Burles. “That’s really all we want to do.”

Courageous Companions is an organization completely supported by donations, and service dogs can cost up to 20 to $30,000.

“Some legion branches will fund a (service) dog, some will not. Veterans Affairs won’t fund any dogs, the government won’t fund any. So they leave it up to charities to go out there and raise the money to do that,” said Dugas. “It’s always a challenge. You can have a barbecue and raise $600 but at 20 grand a dog, that’s a lot of barbecues.”

A secure support system is imperative for those who deal with the everyday challenges of PTSD. Now a retired master corporal, Burles is a veteran who served for eight years in the military. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012, and after a year of exhausting doctor’s appointments, he finally found the right fit with one doctor practising equine therapy. Burles grew up around horses and working with them made perfect sense.

“When you’re working with a horse, they can see and feel the immediate changes in your chemistry,” said Burles.

“One of the neat things is you could be doing a walk-through with your doctor on one of the traumatic events that you’ve been through, and the moment that you start to fade into a flashback, or you start feeling the emotion start to pick up, that horse will engage.”

It takes a special kind of animal to offer the right connection and support needed by those who live with mental and physical disabilities. That’s why the training process at Courageous Companions is thorough to ensure handlers and their dogs are perfectly matched.

Training is specialized to accommodate the handler’s needs, and a dog must be able to perform at least three tasks to become a service dog. Tasks can include grounding, space management, distraction and even waking handlers from a nightmare or detecting high blood pressure.

Burles recalls a time when, at a Walk for Veterans event, one veteran stood backed up against a tree, wide-eyed, with his service dog by his side. The dog was touching the veteran’s hand to distract him. Burles walked up to shake his hand and thank him for coming out, when the veteran told him it had been the first time out of his house in two years.

Burles explained it was the service dog, and being surrounded by other veterans, that kept the man centred enough to be there.

“It was difficult, but it was still within his realm of accomplishment and management by having that dog there,” said Burles.

For many of those who deal with the effects of PTSD, being in crowds and public places can take a great amount of courage. The Walk for Veterans event offers an encouraging environment for those individuals to take that brave next step, and to talk comfortably about their experiences.

“When you sit and you start talking about really dark things, the world starts to close in on you and you’re stationery, and it’s that much more challenging. But if you’re up and walking and people are moving with you and they’re talking and nodding, it becomes a much more fluid, easier way to talk,” explained Burles.

This year, the Walk for Veterans was virtual. Participants walked from various spots across Edmonton not only in support of each other but also in support of the service dogs that help change so many lives. The tally for this year’s fundraiser hasn’t been posted yet.

Guide Dog Puppies

Two adorable Labrador puppies have been named Bonnie and Henry in a tribute to BC’s provincial health officer.

BC & Alberta Guide Dogs said staff chose the names because Dr. Bonnie Henry embodies qualities they think the dogs should have.

“Dr. Henry has been a wonderful presence of calm and guidance through the COVID-19 pandemic, and our organization felt that it was a fitting tribute to name these little puppies after her, as they will one day grow up to provide those same qualities of guidance and support to someone in need,” Bill Thornton, CEO of BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, said in a news release. Dr. Bonnie Henry said she was touched by the gesture. Bonnie and Henry were born into a litter of 10 puppies. All the siblings will train to be certified as guide dogs, so that when they grow up they can help people who are blind or who have visual impairments. Some of the puppies may also go on to become service dogs for people with autism or PTSD service dogs for veterans and first responders.