Troubled veterans feel at peace working with rescue dogs

January 26, 2015

Shana Hughes, 30, a U.S. Air Force veteran, works with Cello.

CHICAGO — 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 easy."

Elmore 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.

Safe 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.

Thresholds, which provides health services, guidance, education and support for people struggling with various degrees of mental illness, recruited former service members and provided caseworkers.

The training sessions were held at the animal control facility where the dogs were housed.

During the eight-week pilot program the dogs and veterans worked two, two-hour sessions each week. From all accounts, it helped the dogs.

"I 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."

On 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.

Each dog was given a series of commands. Kat Budrean, Safe Humane’s court case program manager, monitored the canine students.

"Kat questions the handlers on the dogs’ progress in particular manners," said Cynthia Bathurst, Safe Humane’s board chair and executive director.

She 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."

The VALOR program is the brainchild of Lynda Stein, Christa Velbel and Mary Bookman, three longtime rescue volunteers.

The 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.

They 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.

"The 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 celebrated."

As 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.

There 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.

Of the 15 original dogs approved for the pilot program, 14 have been adopted, moved to foster homes or taken in by others.

The veterans are benefiting as well.

"This 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."

He 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."

The 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 Control.

"I 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 great program."



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services