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Local

Paws & Effect: program trains dogs for veterans

Tessa De Jong, 11, of Newton works with Anthem, a Labrador puppy she and her mom are 
training to one day be a service dog for a veteran.
Tessa De Jong, 11, of Newton works with Anthem, a Labrador puppy she and her mom are training to one day be a service dog for a veteran.

At some point during the next year, many Newton residents will have the opportunity to meet Hero and Anthem, two robust Labrador puppies that, as their names suggest, have their own unique way of honoring United States veterans.

Hero and Anthem are two of seven puppies recently acquired by the Des Moines-based Paws & Effect program that have been placed in homes of volunteers for service dog training. Once the dogs are about 18 months old, each will then find a new home with an Iowa veteran. But the journey in between is a vital one, and one Newton residents Travis Padget and Tammi and Tessa De Jong are proud to share with Hero and Anthem.

“I decided to get involved as I thought it was a great way to give back to men and women who have given so much of themselves for us and our freedom,” said Padget, who is raising Hero. “We do not get any financial rewards for raising these dogs, but we get the life-long reward of knowing that we made a difference.”

The journey began when Padget met Nicole Shumate, who launched Paws & Effect, an affiliate with the national organization Delta Society, with her husband in May 2006. De Jong, Padget’s sister, then invited Shumate to present a program about Paws & Effect to the Newton Rotary Club. As Padget and De Jong learned more about the goals of the program, they decided to become involved by committing to being “puppy raisers” for dogs that eventually will become companions to veterans — and most likely to a veteran experiencing the effects of post traumatic stress disorder.

“Post traumatic stress disorder isn’t a visible wound, but it doesn’t mean that that wound isn’t there,” Shumate said. “So a lot of the focus has been informing the public a little more about what post traumatic stress disorder is and why somebody might have a service dog for it.”

According to Shumate, Paws & Effect started out small, with two branches of focus: a service dog program and a therapy dog program called the Pet Partner Program. Since its inception, Paws & Effect has provided service dogs to six individuals, with the most recent being a former sailor suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Hero and Anthem are members of Paws & Effect’s first litter, and Shumate said the organization expects that as awareness of the program increases, the demand for service dogs from Paws & Effect will grow, and she hopes the organization soon will be able to handle two or three litters a year.

“The challenge with having litters is the timeline is really long, and it’s a lot of work,” she said. “Our goal is to be able to place these dogs without any cost to the recipient, so we’re bringing litters in and hoping to be able to fundraise at the same time, as the costs accrue quickly. It’s thousands of dollars in dog food ... every dog will cost the organization $15,000 to $20,000. Hence we are fundraising heavily now.”

Although Paws & Effect does not only provide services dogs to veterans, Shumate said Paws & Effect designated Hero and Anthem’s litter — acquired on Oct. 15 from an Indianola breeder — for veterans because they entered the program so close to Veterans Day. In addition to Hero and Anthem, the litter includes Liberty, Merit, Honor, Valor and Justice. Paget and the De Jongs welcomed Hero and Anthem into their homes about a week before Halloween, and the Iowa National Guard has lent its cooperation, with Liberty is being raised by Colonel Gregory O. Hapgood Jr., the Iowa National Guard’s public affairs officer.

“There’s a strong possibility that of the soldiers that are deployed right now, about 30 to 40 percent will be diagnosed with some form of PTSD,” Shumate said. “With this litter, we’ve paced it in such a way that it’s very possible we might start seeing the first diagnosees after troops return home next summer in 2011. That was a very intentional effort. As these soldiers return and are diagnosed, our hope is to be able to match them very quickly with a service dog.”

Hapgood said the Iowa National Guard currently has 3,100 soldiers and airmen deployed, with most in Afghanistan and others in Iraq, Kosovo and other places in the Middle East.

“We’re looking for any possible resource to help our men and women reach wellness, and with PTSD, it’s not just one method or one application or one resource that gets the job done,” Hapgood said. “You have to kind of reach it from a multi-pronged attack, if you will. And so this is a great tool for us to be able to reach our men and women. And maybe by an unconventional way or a way that doesn’t feel like someone is getting treatment, per se, they’re going to achieve a greater degree of wellness by the companionship of this animal.”

Every Saturday, Padget, the De Jongs and Hapgood join the other families raising dogs from the “military litter” at Canine Craze in Des Moines for training together.

“The puppies will learn some very basic service dog skills, like how to back up so they can open doors,” Shumate said. “As a group, they are working together for six to eight weeks.”

Shumate also noted the puppies will learn several tasks to specifically help veterans suffering from PTSD.

“We teach the dogs to maintain a certain amount of physical space, and so the dog might stand in front of somebody in a way that you can’t approach them too closely, and it’s just a way to maintain a little bit more distance,” Shumate explained. “Or sometimes the dog will stand behind somebody in such a way that it would make it a little more challenging for another person to come up and be very close to them from behind.”

The dogs also will learn to provide visual indicators, such as tail wagging, to alert the owner that a person is approaching from behind.

“It gives them a good indication so that they don’t feel like they always have to be on alert,” Shumate said. “They probably learn about 15 tasks that pretty specifically offset some of the more debilitating effects of PTSD, and you can’t overlook the idea of having a companion. I’m willing to bet that’s almost as important as some of the tasks we teach them. It can be a really heavy demand, and it’s a demand that the dogs don’t mind meeting.”

Hapgood agreed one of the greatest benefits of a service dog for a PTSD victim is the constant companionship.

“One of the things that’s important for PTSD for our men and women is always having someone there, that the person is never alone,” he said.

Padget and the De Jongs have been working to introduce Hero and Anthem to people and places all over the community, not only as part of the dogs’ training but to increase awareness about the program and the need for service dogs. Hero joins Padget at work each day, and Anthem has been to Rotary meetings at Midtown and DMACC, Tammi’s workplace at Thombert’s and to two Progress Industries groups homes. Padget and the De Jongs even took the puppies to Costco in Des Moines.

“They’re supposed to be so well-socialized that we’re supposed to having them meeting three new people everyday and one new dog everyday,” De Jong said. “So one of the challenges is finding a dog they can socialize with everyday.”

Padget and De Jong also strive to increase awareness of laws relating to service dogs. For instance, businesses may ask if a dog is a service dog and what tasks the dog performs, but they are not allowed to ask about the person’s disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“I have been impressed with people’s reactions to the service dogs,” Padget said. “Most people know to ask before petting them. I encourage people to stop us and ask questions. These two handsome dogs will a part of our community for a year and a half, so I hope people get to know them and see how amazing they are. Each dog will dramatically improve the life of a vet.”

Shumate said Paws & Effect hopes to take all seven puppies and their puppy raisers to New York City in October 2011, when the dogs are about a year old.

“I think it is important for them to be exposed to that level of activity and that level of energy,” Shumate siad. “It’s a little bit of a proving ground for them, that they can handle the stress and the tension and the demands of working all day every day for three days. Then when we place them, we feel really confident that the recipients could go anywhere at any time and feel good that those dogs would continue to work. And being in New York City is just something that we just can’t replicate in Des Moines. We can’t have packed subways and Times Square. Our other dogs have done really well there. Puppy raisers are kind of tasked with working them hard all year, and then that’s kind of their crowning moment.”

Paws & Effect plans to accept applications from veterans for service dogs from the military litter in January and possibly June of 2011, and the organization hopes to have five public service announcements about the puppies, the organization and PTSD airing across the state by Thanksgiving. Once the word has been spread and the training completed, the puppy raisers will have only one final challenge: how to say goodbye.

“I don’t think I’ve had anyone turn in a dog yet and not cry,” Shumate said. “The puppy raisers we’ve had at this point are very committed to the project. When we know the placement has gone well, we communicate with the puppy raisers to let them know. It’s hard. I don’t make light of that. The puppy raisers do not get nearly enough credit for the amount of work that they put into it, for the amount of love that they put into it, and then having to part with all of that for somebody else’s benefit. We’ve definitely given them a really challenging task.”

Hapgood noted he and his wife already are dog owners and that taking on the responsibility of a puppy was not a decision they made lightly.

“Raising a puppy again is kind of like raising a kid again,” Hapgood said. “But when you think about the reason, it was an easy decision for us.”

Padget shared Hapgood’s view, explaining that he grew up next to a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD.

“When I found out that the dogs also assist with PTSD, I was in no matter what,” Padget said. “The giving-them-up question is the most frequent question we get. Our belief, and this always brings tears to my eyes, is that there are thousands of families who have let their children serve all of us. We know that it is not easy for them, but it is life-changing for us. Sending our dogs off will not be easy for us, but it will be life-changing for the vet.”

De Jong also said that most people she and her daughter encounter immediately ask how they will be able to let Anthem go when the time comes.

“So many people say, ‘Wow, it’s going to be so hard to give him up,’” De Jong said. “And my reply is always, ‘Yes, it will be, but no harder than a family that’s given up their soldier for us.’ We know that he’s going to go to safe place, and he’s going to do a lot of good for somebody in need, and that’s our way of giving back. That is our focus. And we know we’re going to love him and invest in him, but so does the family that sends a soldier.

“Our family, Tessa and I have great appreciation for our soldiers and veterans and everything they’ve done for us, and this is our way of giving back. There’s a lot of people working to invest in these dogs, and all because they are going to go to someone very special.”

Donations to assist Paws & Effect with providing service dogs to veterans may be sent to P.O. Box 41442, Des Moines, IA 50311. For more information about Paws & Effect, contact Shumate at nicoleshumate@yahoo.com.

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