Wounded warriors get a free service dog, and a new outlook on life

Matt Saintsing
July 09, 2018 - 3:16 pm

Photo Courtesy of Veteran Service Canines, Inc.

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A dog is a man’s best friend. That expression is tried and true, but for Marine Corps veteran Dave Laughman, it’s more than just a saying—it’s a way to heal. 

In 2015, Laughman helped launch Veteran Service Canines, Inc, a southeastern Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group that connects veterans with service-connected disabilities with service dogs free of charge. Laughman’s seen firsthand what dogs can do for combat veterans since he’s one himself. 

“It’s a hard pill to swallow when you realize it’s not the rest of the world that’s messed up, it’s you,” he says. “I had a dog when going through my trials and it helped immensely.” 

Photo Courtesy of Veteran Service Canine, Inc.

That journey inspired him to supply, train, and place service dogs free of charge to veterans with service-connected disabilities, including post-traumatic stress (PTS) traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other physical and invisible wounds of war. The idea is to give these veterans the best chance to have the same quality of life they had prior to their service. Laughman says the nature of dogs is to please and they do, for very little in return. That’s crucial for some veterans who cope with everyday struggles. 

Some traumatic memories can be triggered by reminders, such as an anniversary date of the original trauma. “If a veteran is having an off day, a dog doesn’t care,” says Laughman. “They are there to please. That’s huge when talking about a veterans’ trigger date." 

They focus mostly on Labrador retrievers, German Shepherds, Labrador-pit-bull mixes, and other larger breed dogs and, to date, have given away 35 pooches. 

Here’s how it works: The training each canine receives is tailor-fit for the veteran. To ensure the dog is trained up to standards and that the veteran fully understands what he or she is getting, they are required to train at least once a week at their facility in York, PA.

Photo Courtesy of Veteran Service Canine, Inc.

Some of the dogs are bred for the program and others come from another nonprofit group in Alabama that identifies the types of dogs Veteran Service Canines, Inc want. From there, the dogs are fixed, receive an electronic chip, and their first round of shots. Then, they’re transported to Harrisburg, PA, to meet their forever home and veteran. But before that, the dogs are fostered by Veteran Service Canines, Inc. 

From there, the veteran trains with their dog for whatever they need. If a veteran has PTS induced nightmares, for example, the canine will be trained to wake them up. Others, Laughman says, are trained to create space behind their veteran to let them know that someone is approaching from behind. 

“That gives them a second sense of security,” he adds. 

The dogs are acquired free, so those looking for a pooch don’t have to worry about a puppy-mill, and Laughman says the organization covers the cost of initial veterinary care, like shots and getting spayed or neutered. The dogs are then trained side-by-side with their veteran by an experienced trainer and are gifted to them free of charge.

Everyone who works at Veteran Service Canines, Inc volunteers their time, and all are either veterans or married to one. One of their volunteers, Chad Reynolds, went through the program a few years ago and has since gotten off all of the pills he used to get through the VA. Laughman says the dog helped Chad, and he adds that the bond between the veteran and dog can encourage them to live a more active, social life.

Photo Courtesy of Veteran Service Canine, Inc.

They may be local right now but are looking to expand into neighboring Maryland where they’re acquiring another training facility.

To fund care for the dogs, they’re organizing a 3rd annual Veteran Service Canine Benefit Ride, a group motorcycle ride which includes consisting of two American Legions in Marietta and Wrightsville, as well as an AMVETs post in Lancaster and a VFW post in Hellam. Laughman says he's expecting around 400 riders, but the more the merrier. 

It kicks off at 1:00 pm on August 11, 2018, and the route laces through Lancaster County, crosses over the scenic Susquehanna River, and weaves through York County, with stops at several locations along the way. And they’ll be stopping at the training facility where riders can see firsthand the impact dogs can have on veterans in need. 

"They’ll hear from people who have actually benefited from the program, not just ones trying to promote it," says Laughman. 

Last year, they raised about $2,000 with the help of T-shirt sales and event sign-ups and this year, they’re hoping to blow that number out of the water. 
Anyone interested in donating or riding can check out their website here

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