Vietnam veteran Lon Hodge struggled for years with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until he got a PTSD service dog named Gander. Lon says that Gander has saved his life. Now, Lon and Gander help other vets and work to raise awareness about PTSD, veteran suicide and service dogs. Jay Shefsky has a profile.
Read an interview with Fran Menley, Service Dog Trainer at Freedom Service Dogs of America, about how they rescue, train and pair dogs with veterans and people with disabilities.
Lon Hodge seems to be a highly-regarded client.
I don’t know him personally (he got his dog before I started at Freedom Service Dogs), but I know he’s very well thought of here. He also does a lot of PR for us whenever he’s in town. We love him and Gander (his service dog) both.
How rigorous is the training process for service dogs?
All our dogs are rescued from shelters. This is fairly unique in service dog world. Before taking them in, we evaluate them. There’s about four pages worth of things we work them through. When selected, we start our health-related training. For example, we run x-rays, eye training and physicals to make sure they stay healthy as long as possible. We do this because we want them to stay with their client for as long as possible. We usually train them for 7 to 9 months. It’s a daily process, except for Saturdays and Sundays. We make sure all our training is positive. We do not use shock or choke collars. We use food treats. It’s a nicer and gentler way to go through life. Also, all of our dogs are re-certified yearly for the first three years, then may go through re-certification every three years if the client and dog are doing well.
Are there any special training scenarios the dogs are put through?
We make sure they’re trained in public so they are ready to handle public spaces with clients. Also, depending on the client’s needs, we train them for custom tests, like screening rooms or turning on lights before the client enters. It indicates an “all clear” signal. This training is used especially for our PTSD clients. All of our veteran clients tell us our dogs are valuable for helping them calm down.
What other benefits have veterans gained from having a service dog?
If our clients have mobility issues, we train our dogs to retrieve things for them. It can be anything from getting medicine for them, to their purses. It has to be allocated to a certain area though. They can’t just go sniffing for stuff to bring the clients. They can also turn lights on and offer steadiness for disabled clients. For example, if they’re prone to fall, our dogs are taught to balance them. They’re good-sized and strong. We also teach the dogs a variety of things to help clients with when dealing with PTSD. Our dogs can provide space between the client and people when in public. The dog can stand in between, in front of, or behind the client. It’s not to serve as a guard from people. It’s more like a little bubble that provides comfort. We make sure they calm the clients down, and it’s been proven to lower their blood pressures.
Can you explain the pairing process?
Both the dog and client will go through two weeks of pre-rigorous training. They learn search dog law (where to go, where not to go, what to do, what not to do). A reason for training them both is for clients to understand our dogs are not robots. They need care, love, to eat and to go relieve themselves. We go through all these things with them, and it’s more than teaching the clients how to train the dog to just sit and stay. They’re exhausted by the end of each day. Everyone is. They all know the basics (much more than what a well- trained pet would know). But they’re even more obedient. Different clients have different needs. They might have to sit in an office all day or travel on public transportation. Stuff normal pets would never be exposed to.
What problems might service dogs face nowadays that impact organizations like Freedom Service Dogs?
There are a lot of people out there that misrepresent their pets as service dogs. So when they misbehave in public, that give us a bad impression. Those bad experiences will leave a bad taste in business owners’ mouths, so they won’t allow any dogs in their stores. It’s hard for the public to discern a real service dog from a fake.
Is there anything a person can do to confirm if someone’s dog is actually a service dog?
Not really. The only two things someone can ask legally are: “Is your dog a service dog,” and “what three tasks does your service dog do for you?” The problem is anyone can lie. If a person has to disclose something they don’t want to (like their disability) it can border on that person’s rights.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
~Jay Shefsky contributed to this report.