PITTSBURGH — German shepherds named Lily, Oliver, Shilo and Faith have been in their new homes for less than a month, but they’ve already made life-altering improvements for the local veterans with whom they’ve been teamed.
One of the dogs sniffs the breath of her sleeping partner, who has diabetes, and wakes him if she determines that his blood-sugar levels are too high or too low. Then he takes his medication.
All of the veterans report they are sleeping better because the dogs ease or even prevent nightmares. The highly trained dogs prevent daytime panic attacks and flashbacks. They lessen the anxiety, depression and hypervigilance that comes with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Some are trained to help veterans with mobility issues. Many can push a button to call 911 without a command from their partners.
Each dog was custom-trained to meet the needs of a specific human partner by Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc. in Williston, Fla. The cost for each dog is $22,000, which includes food, veterinary care and 500 to 2,000 hours of training. Veterans pay nothing for their dogs. Currently, 150 people nationwide are on a waiting list for the dogs.
The four German shepherds came with their partners Friday to the Marriott City Center for a refresher training session with Carol Borden, whose organization since 2009 has trained and placed medical service dogs with 170 people, many of them veterans.
Training starts when the puppies — bred on the 35-acre Guardian Angels property — are less than a month old, Ms. Borden said. Puppy training sessions are designed to be fun and very short.
Six professional trainers are in the program, which currently has 80 dogs on the property. Most are German shepherds because “they mature early, learn quickly” and love to work, she said.
Staff trainers work with the puppies for a year, teaching basic obedience and using positive reinforcement — praise and treats — to build the confidence of the dogs.
Then dogs go into foster homes for eight weeks, where families get the young dogs accustomed to being out in public, Borden said.
They come back to Guardian Angels for 500 to 2,000 hours of professional training, which takes one to two years, depending on the number of skills the dogs need to learn.
Borden says picking the right dog for each veteran “is more art than science,” but there are some guidelines. A young dog with extremely high energy levels is generally best suited for a younger veteran, for instance.
For the final stages of training, veterans go to Florida for two to three weeks to bond with their dogs and learn how to handle them. Borden and her staff stay in touch with the people who get the dogs, and she travels the country to do refresher courses with the dogs and their partners.
“Talk to them in a high-pitched voice and tell them how good they are. They love that,” she said Friday at the hotel training session for the four vet-dog teams: Lily, 22 months old, and Vietnam Marine veteran Joe McQuade of Monroeville, Pa.; Faith, 4, and Vietnam Marine veteran Bill Finnel of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie; Shilo, 6, and Army veteran Larry Rebar of Homer City, Pa., who served in Grenada and Iraq; and Oliver, 22 months old, and Iraq Army veteran Mitchell Baldwin of Harrisburg, Pa.
The vets put their dogs through their paces, healing on a very loose leash and showing off learned skills including picking up keys and other dropped items and handing them back to their partner.
Five dogs, at a total cost of $110,000, have been funded locally. Three were funded by philanthropists who have established Pittsburgh Foundation funds: the family of retired Steelers star Troy Polamalu; Robinson, Pa., businessman Scott Noxon; and retired Peters, Pa., businessman Joseph Fairbanks, a Navy veteran who works with organizations that help veterans. The Pittsburgh Foundation donated $44,000 for the other two.
Tony Accamando of Eighty-Four set up an organization called Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans to raise $500,000 for 22 dogs from Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs. He also co-founded Veterans Cable Services, which exclusively hires vets for tech-industry jobs.
“Twenty-two is the number of veterans who commit suicide each day,” Accamando said. “For veterans who have received a Guardian Angel dog, the number of suicides is zero.”
Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans is partnering with PNC Bank to launch the first annual fundraising Mutt Strut, which will be held Oct. 1 in Frick Park. A kickoff breakfast was to be held this morning.
To donate, make checks payable to Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs and mail to Veterans Cable Services Inc., 3591 Ridgeway Drive, Bethel Park, PA 15102.