Hughes, 30, a U.S. Air Force veteran, works with
— James Elmore was putting Vienna, a pit bull mix,
through her paces. On command, she sat, went to the down
position, crawled, reached to shake hands. And if that
didn’t impress, there was one of those
"easy" buttons sitting nearby. Vienna smacked
it with a paw, triggering a disembodied "That was
and Vienna, along with four other veterans and 14 other
dogs, are part of the pilot program for Veterans
Advancing Lives Of Rescues (VALOR), a combined effort by
Safe Humane Chicago, the mental health agency Thresholds
and Chicago’s Commission on Animal Care and Control.
Humane Chicago, a nonprofit that seeks to create safer
communities through education and stronger human-animal
relationships, provided animals from its court case dogs
program — abused or neglected dogs that were
confiscated or saved by law enforcement personnel.
which provides health services, guidance, education and
support for people struggling with various degrees of
mental illness, recruited former service members and
training sessions were held at the animal control
facility where the dogs were housed.
the eight-week pilot program the dogs and veterans
worked two, two-hour sessions each week. From all
accounts, it helped the dogs.
look at it like they’ve been falsely accused of
something," says Elmore, a former Marine.
"Like if they were taught to fight, but we bring
them back, to where they can be adopted. I get a thrill
out of that."
a recent afternoon, Elmore and fellow vets Shana Hughes
and Winman Dickey worked with four dogs — Vienna,
Cello, Dilly and Otto, a charming 2-year-old pit mix
with a broken tail who is the last of the program’s
original 15 dogs.
dog was given a series of commands. Kat Budrean, Safe
Humane’s court case program manager, monitored the
questions the handlers on the dogs’ progress in
particular manners," said Cynthia Bathurst, Safe
Humane’s board chair and executive director.
said the goal is to improve the animal’s social
behaviors. "If they have good manners, people are
more likely to consider them for their homes."
VALOR program is the brainchild of Lynda Stein, Christa
Velbel and Mary Bookman, three longtime rescue
seed was planted about three years ago. Velbel and
Bookman were PAWS Chicago volunteers. They received an
email from someone within the Veterans Administration,
asking if PAWS had any sort of outreach program for
veterans. It didn’t, but they held onto the email.
Making small talk at a party a short time later, Stein,
Velbel and Bookman kicked around ideas to help veterans
and shelter animals.
tried to put together a program, but never could get all
the pieces to fit. Then Stein brought the idea to
Bathurst, and the wheels were in motion.
veterans share the plight of this dog population,"
says Janice Triptow, trainer for VALOR and Safe Home
Chicago’s manager of behavior and training. "They’re
a little unsettled and making their journey. I think
they bring empathy to the dogs and learn patience. They
learn that small improvements are to be
any pet owner knows, caring for a dog entails a lot of
work, and the VALOR program serves as an introduction to
those tasks for veterans who might be at a point in
their lives when they’re looking for more to take on.
They learn how to keep a dog’s ears clean, clip the
nails and other things dogs require.
are benefits for both sides. Once in the program, the
dogs are on a path to being saved. They’re uncaged,
getting exercise — if only for a few hours a week —
they’re getting training and their socialization
skills are being sharpened. They are also being prepared
to join society.
the 15 original dogs approved for the pilot program, 14
have been adopted, moved to foster homes or taken in by
veterans are benefiting as well.
got me back in touch with my emotions," says
Dickey, who served in the Army in the ’70s. He said
that for years after leaving the service, he had
difficulties coping. "I knew I had a problem, but I
didn’t know how severe."
said his depression comes and goes, but "When I
came in (the program) with the dogs and got my mind into
it, it was a beautiful experience."
next group of dogs and veterans will begin training
shortly. The five who graduated from the pilot program
will help out and continue working with the court case
dogs. They also became volunteers at Animal Care and
have problems finding my self-worth. I have suicidal
thoughts and stuff," said Hughes, an Air Force
veteran. "So this brings something meaningful to my
life. There’s a sense of accomplishment. ... It’s a