Patriot Paws Helps Veterans Maintain Their Independence
A dog trainer with more than 20 years’ experience working and volunteering for several service dog organizations, Stevens was approached in 2005 by a group of disabled veterans from the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital to assist them with training. Stevens was stunned to learn how many veterans were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mobility issues. She decided that she could help, not only with training the dogs, but also in matching veterans with a dog trained to meet their individual needs, ranging from balance issues to support for those suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Six years and 35 dogs later, Stevens’ non-profit, Patriot Paws, continues to train dogs, many of them rescues from local shelters, and places them in forever homes with disabled veterans.
“We had one veteran who was a double amputee and we trained his dog to bring him his wheelchair and prosthetic legs,” Stevens, 53, says. “We’ve also taught dogs to help veterans get dressed, to assist with their balance, and to help with tasks such as taking dishes off the table and putting them in the dishwasher.”
In 2008, to meet the growing demand for service dogs, Stevens entered into a partnership with the Texas Department of Corrections. Dogs now undergo an extensive six-month training at the Lane Murray Unit and the Crain Women’s Correctional Unit in Gatesville, Texas. At the prisons, the dogs live side-by-side with female inmates who serve as their trainers and work with the dogs to master a series of 55 basic commands. The dogs alternate between time spent at the prison and time spent with volunteer “puppy raisers” who work with the dogs in private homes to master skills such as socializing and basic behaviors.
“We have a long waiting list of female offenders who want to become trainers in the program,” says Stevens who works with her volunteers to teach the women training skills. “We’ve had tremendous feedback from the women who feel they aren’t just learning a new skill, but are also doing something positive.”
The program also boasts a low recidivism rate. Of the 22 women who have served as trainers and have been paroled, only one has returned to jail. Two women have been subsequently hired by Stevens to work in the Patriot Paws program.
Today, Stevens has 43 veterans on the waiting list to receive a service dog. Each applicant must be referred to Patriot Paws by their physician and undergo a home evaluation, before traveling to Texas to meet their prospective service dog. When dogs are a year and a half old, they are placed with veterans.
By utilizing volunteers and partnering with the prison system, Stevens is able to keep the cost of training a service dog to approximately $20,000-$30,000, many other service organizations estimate their costs at approximately $60,000.
“We rely on volunteers and donations to keep our organization going strong,” Stevens says. “These veterans have all provided a tremendous service to our country and partnering them with a service dog allows them to regain their mobility and independence.”
While Beau died in March of 2011 at the age of 15, Stevens says his legacy lives on.
“Eighty-five percent of our service dogs are Labs or Lab mixes like Beau,” Stevens says. “He met and touched the lives of countless people, and inspired other service dogs. He was a true canine hero.”