Training veterans' dogs to be their service dogs

Jonathan Kaupanger
July 12, 2018 - 2:49 pm

Photo by Mutts with a Mission

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Angus was a Cairn terrier puppy who went everywhere with Brooke.   The scruffy and adorable dog went on ruck marches with her and basically anywhere else allowable on the Army post where Brooke worked as a supply sergeant.  Sadly, Angus’ life ended early in a tragic accident, but his memory started something incredible, Mutts with a Mission.

Brooke Corson, executive director of Mutts with a Mission, worked at Bravo Company 1/50 Infantry Training Battalion at Ft. Benning.  At the end of the day, friends would stop by her office and, without even saying hello to her, would ask for Angus.  “He’d go over and jump in their lap and you could see them relax,” recalls Brooke.  “You could physically see the stress of the day go away.  Having seen what he could do, I knew that something could be done with dogs to help mitigate the epidemic of veteran suicide.”

Mutts with a Mission (MWAM) is a nonprofit that trains service dogs for veterans and wounded warriors.  Training dogs is in Brooke’s blood.   Her mom trained dogs.  She has a degree in animal science and says that her experience as a drill sergeant even comes in handy at times.  (When asked what’s more difficult to train, a group of humans or a group of dogs, Brooke said with a snort, “Oh humans.  Absolutely humans.”) 

But in 2011, an experience with a veteran changed how she looked at training service dogs.

Photo by Mutts with a Mission

A disabled veteran came to her in need of a service dog, but he already had a dog.  He didn’t want another one. He wanted Brooke to train the dog he already had. And sure enough, because the dog and owner already had a bond, and the dog met the training and personality standards of a service dog - it worked.

“Some of these dogs, even while they’re in training, might be waking these guys up from night terrors,” says Brooke.  “So even though they haven’t graduated yet, they are still providing the service these guys need.  I think by having our Owner Train program, with these guys going through the training, instead of being on a waiting list for two years, they are already starting to get some help from these dogs.”

And it costs nothing.

Training at MWAM lasts anywhere from six months to two years.  For the Owner Train program, Brooke will take dogs up to three years old.  The working life of a service dog is only eight to ten years and training can cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per dog.  Anything past three-years-old just isn’t cost effective as it cuts into the time a veteran can use the dog. 

Photo by Mutts with a Mission

MWAM does take puppies in for training, but even this is done in a unique way.  They use volunteers to help raise the puppies during their training.  These volunteers attend a weekly training with the puppy and the rest of the time work on socialization and exposure to the specific tasks the dog will need to perform.  This lets MWAM have more dogs in the program, which means more veterans will receive help.  The first class graduates February 2019, and MWAM is opening the list up nationally this fall.  If you’re interested in possibly adopting one of these service dogs, you can contact Brooke through the MWAM website.

The services at MWAM are completely free to veterans.  They’ll even help the veterans in the Owner Train program with bills if needed.  “We just had one dog who developed a tumor,” says Brooke.  “We paid for the surgery because we knew the veteran couldn’t come up with the $700 for the surgery.”  Brooke and her team will help with food if needed as well.

Brooke believes one of the reasons dogs do so well as service animals is because they don’t judge us.  No matter what’s happening, no matter what a person has been through, dogs just don’t care.  They love every person unconditionally.  For Brooke and MWAM, unconditional love and support is a gift back to veterans. 

“Because they’ve done so much for us, their lives have been dramatically changed, they lost their independence keeping America safe,” Brooke says.  “If I can provide them with a well-trained service dog that helps them regain some of that independence, I’m going to do it.”

Photo by Mutts with a Mission

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