The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 4, 2008

Going to the dogs to help disabled veterans

Injured veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars get invaluable help from trained assistance dogs provided by the Canines for Combat Veterans Program and combat veterans’ requests

At a benefit for the Canines for Combat Veterans program hosted by Representative Cory Atkins at her home on June 29, all the guests were smiling before the clouds burst. From left to right are Jean Bell, dog trainer Thomas Raftery, Cory Atkins with Gumbo and far right, Sue Downes, an Iraq War double amputee and her service dog, Lila. (Photo by Lois d’Annunzio)

for these highly trained helpers is increasing. It takes intensive work to turn a cuddly puppy into an effective partner that can help a fallen amputee get back on his feet, or pick up a dropped pencil or let a deaf person know there is someone at the door.

Part of that work is done in Carlisle’s back yard, at the Northeast Correctional Center in Concord, where puppies stay with chosen inmates in their cells 24 hours a day during their training as assistance dogs. Another part of the work is done by community volunteers who partner with prisoners by taking a shared puppy home for the weekend to teach it socialization skills needed outside the prison, such as riding in a car, going to a restaurant, accompanying the volunteer in public places.

Puppies on Parole Program

State Representative Cory Atkins is a volunteer in the Puppies on Parole Program, the weekend component of Canines for Combat Veterans, and Carlisle residents may have seen her at community events with her current trainee, Gumbo, a friendly and well-mannered yellow Lab. Gumbo is the latest in a series of handsome and winsome puppies who have spent their weekdays inside the prison and their weekends outside the prison with Atkins. He will soon graduate from the training program and be given to a veteran.

Atkins is not the only legislator involved in the program: U.S. Senator John Kerry, Congresswoman Nikki Tsongas and State Representative Anthony Verga, who chairs the House Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, have strongly endorsed the Canines for Combat Veterans program.

How the program works

NEADS (National Education Association for Assistance Dog Services) was established in 1976 and initially provided dogs to the hearing disabled. Since that time it has trained nearly 1,000 teams in 31 states, averaging nearly 50 to 60 new Assistance Dog teams a year. Canines for Combat Veterans is a NEADS program, and the Concord prison training site is one of 14 correctional sites in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont involved in a dog training program. In addition, NEADS maintains a permanent facility in Princeton, Massachusetts, for an introductory program for puppies before they go to their prison trainer and for advanced training. The Princeton site also provides housing for clients and dogs while they train together.

Sheila O’Brien, NEADS executive director, says that the numbers of wounded veterans have increased the demand for service dogs for the physically disabled. NEADS has a 1-1/2 year waiting list at this time and is trying to double the number of dogs trained each year in order to provide service dogs for veterans. She has been asked to do an in-service seminar on the use of service dogs at Walter Reed Hospital. She says the veterans group is younger than the pre-war disabled group, and that they want more freedom, fewer canes and more mobility and independence

This all adds up to the need for training more dogs and more volunteers over the next five years for service people alone, at the same time as service to the rest of the disabled population in need of dogs is maintained. Persons interested in the NEADS program can contact them at PO Box 213, West Boylston, MA 01583, or online at The program is not cheap: NEADS donates puppies to the prison training program and picks up the bill for food and veterinary care. Atkins says that training and maintaining a service dog for the necessary year of training costs $20,000. Recipients pay or fundraise roughly a third of that amount with help from NEADS, but the rest comes from individual, group and organizational contributions. No state or federal funding is involved.

It takes about a year to train a service dog. It also takes human resources and caring that are beyond measurement. The good part is that both prisoner and volunteer get to do something that is needed and that improves the quality of a returned veteran’s life. There is a sad part at the end of the year when both the prisoner and volunteer give up the now- trained puppy that they have come to love and it goes to its new handicapped owner. Atkins says, “Everybody bawls at graduation,” including the new owner who regains some of the independence lost because of the war injury.

Every dog owner knows how strong the bond between a dog and its master can be. He or she also knows that the veteran gains something that cannot be measured in time or money, something the rest of us would like to include in saying “Thank you.” ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito