Vet's Best Friends: Service Dogs
James Cadieux is a decorated Vietnam-era veteran with a message for other veterans with disabilities: “If you have a chance to have a service dog, it will change your life forever. Guaranteed.” Cadieux and his service dog Cruiser, a chocolate lab, are constant companions, and the two have become a familiar sight around Myrtle Beach, S.C. They celebrated their first anniversary as a team in November 2014.
“He saved my life,” Cadieux says. Before Cruiser came along, Cadieux lived alone and rarely went out. He was sedentary and had little interaction with other people. Now, Cruiser accompanies him to doctor appointments, on long walks on the beach and around town. “He’s taken me out of depression and made my physical life better,” Cadieux says. Cruiser gives him the confidence to connect with people.
“He stands in front of me to make sure I’m safe,” Cadieux says. Since they’ve been together, Cadieux has lost 65 pounds and has been able to stop taking many of his medications.
Cruiser came to Cadieux via Canine Angels, a Myrtle Beach-based non-profit organization founded by Rick Kaplan, a retired businessman, in 2011. “I came from a dog family,” says Kaplan, who won his first prize for dog training at the age of 7. While running his highly successful jewelry business, Kaplan pursued his passion on the side – working with rescue dogs that end up in shelters because they had poor training, or no training. “Giving the dogs some basic education enables them to find a home,” he says.
As an 18-year-old, Kaplan had a strong desire to follow in the footsteps of his family members who had served in the military. When he tried to enlist during the Vietnam War, however, he was disappointed to learn that he was not eligible. He never lost his desire to find a way to serve. “I’ve had a remarkable life,” Kaplan says. “The chance we get as Americans is paid for by everyone in uniform.”
As a retiree, he dedicated himself to working with rescue dogs in his new community. He recognized that there were many dogs with the potential to become service dogs. Through Canine Angels, Kaplan has found a way to repay those who have served.
Canine Angels serves the local Myrtle Beach community and the surrounding area within an hour’s drive. Since 2011, 50 veterans have been matched with service dogs of all breeds, genders and sizes. A tiny Yorkshire terrier was matched with a 32-year-old who had become a paraplegic after being struck by a drunk driver. “The dog sleeps in the crook of his neck and wakes him up from nightmares,” Kaplan says. “She gets someone if he needs help, reminds him to take his medications and picks up things he drops.” The dog has helped him regain his independence and transformed his family life. He now brings his Yorkie to schools and speaks to students about driving and drinking and how life can be changed in an instant.
Further north, American’s Vet Dogs in Smithtown, N.Y., was established as an independent non-profit in 2006. The organization has its roots in another organization, the Guide Dog Foundation, founded in 1946 to serve World War II veterans who had been blinded or were visually impaired due to combat-related injuries. After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Guide Dog Foundation spun off America’s Vet Dogs as a separate 501(c)(3) dedicated to veterans, and expanded the scope to provide service dogs for a wider range of disabilities.
America’s Vet Dogs has its own breeding program and rarely uses shelter dogs. “Dogs that are bred through the program, we know their temperament, we know the history, the health, how successful they’ve been,” says Andrew Rubenstein, Director of Marketing. Puppies begin their training in a somewhat unusual setting. “We have a prison puppy program that we launched about three or four years ago,” Rubenstein says. The organization works with prisons in Maryland, Massachusetts and Connecticut. “Puppies are brought in and the inmates help train the dogs,” he says. “They have the time to really dedicate a lot of time and effort into the training, the raising, the obedience of the dogs.”
When the dogs are a year-and-a-half old, they return to the main campus in Smithtown where they go through official training. Each dog is specifically matched with a veteran who has applied and been accepted to the program. “If we have a veteran who needs a dog for balance issues, that dog will be specifically trained to work with that veteran for balance and whatever else they need help with,” Rubenstein says. The matching process is very detailed, taking into consideration the height of the veteran, how fast or slowly they walk, if they live in the country or the city, if there are other pets in the house or children at home, lifestyle and work situation.
There is no cost to veterans for this program. All expenses are paid – even transportation. “We’ll fly them to our campus in New York,” Rubenstein says. “We have a 17-room residence hall and a dining room with a chef that cooks three meals a day.” The veterans are there for two weeks and go through an intensive training program. They learn about canine care, dog habits and how to work with their dog.
America’s Vet Dogs works with veterans from all eras. “We’ve had World War II veterans, Korean War veterans, up to current conflicts,” Rubenstein says. “We accept any veteran that has been honorably discharged, whether they were injured in combat or injured when they got home.” The organization is national and works with veterans from all 50 states and Puerto Rico, offering guide dogs, service dogs and hearing dogs. They are working on launching a PTSD pilot program in the near future.
Canine Angels offers dogs to veterans and first responders at no charge. For more information, visit www.canineangelsservicedogs.org.
For further information about America’s Vet Dogs, visit www.vetdogs.org.
To learn about other programs, visit Assistance Dogs International, www.assistancedogsinternational.org.
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