October 28, 2012

A Nonprofit Matches Military Veterans With Canine Helpers

Robin Burnett

Master Sgt. Mark Gwathmey, who served three tours in Iraq, rests with his dog, Larry, who has been trained to alert Mr. Gwathmey when a seizure is imminent. Mr. Gwathmey received the dog from America’s Vet Dogs; its training was paid for by Vets Helping Heroes.

The injuries sustained by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are daunting. Some men and women have returned home with lost limbs, spinal-cord damage, or brain injuries; others have been blinded or may suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

No matter what the injury, many veterans are able to gain greater independence and better quality of life with the help of trained service dogs.

Dogs can be trained to guide blind people, provide stability for veterans with mobility problems, open doors, retrieve dropped items, and provide emotional support, says Irwin Stovroff, founder of Vets Helping Heroes, in Greenacres, Fla.

A veteran of World War II and former prisoner of war who turned 90 in August, Mr. Stovroff started the group in 2006 to provide service animals free to injured veterans of America’s most recent wars. To date, the organization has raised more than $2-million and placed more than 60 dogs with injured veterans.

The cost of raising and training an assistance dog ranges from $20,000 to $60,000, depending on what the animal is expected to do. Seeing-eye dogs are the most expensive because only four out of 10 dogs that start the rigorous training program are able to complete it.

The assistance the dogs provide helps take some of the strain off of families who are adjusting to a veteran’s disability, says Mr. Stovroff. Spouses and children are able to focus on their relationships with the veteran and not get consumed by caregiving responsibilities. “The dog is there 24 hours a day,” he says.

Perhaps the most remarkable assistance the trained dogs provide: They can warn veterans with seizure disorders when an attack is about to happen.

“You will see a dog that normally never makes a sound start to bark, and when he starts barking, he is telling that veteran to sit down, lie down, you’re going to have a seizure,” says Mr. Stovroff. If the veteran doesn’t sit down, he says, the dog will push its owner down to a safe position. “It’s an amazing thing to watch.”

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.