FHS dog qualifies for K9s for Warriors

Published 5:49 pm Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ambrose Mills with Winston, a Foothills Humane Society dog that recently was accepted into the K9s for Warriors program. (photo submitted by Ambrose Mills)

A Foothills Humane Society (FHS) stray has qualified to become a service dog for a veteran through K9s for Warriors, located in Florida.
A few months ago, FHS volunteer Ann Goodheart read an article about service dogs and discussed with others the idea of using Polk County shelter dogs to help those in need.
A group of volunteers began researching the idea and contacted K9s for Warriors in Florida, which agreed to accept a dog that would qualify. In the meantime, local volunteers started the Service Animal Project in hopes of providing service dogs for various organizations.
Goodheart, Mary Ann Merrill and Sev Bennett said they had no idea that in a short time a “miracle” Labrador retriever would walk into the shelter and fit the bill.
Winston, a one-year-old lab, was brought in as a stray and immediately stood out.
Winston has a sweet disposition, volunteers said, and he responds well to treats. They said they knew when he started obedience training he was one of a kind.
“He truly loved to learn and he was very quick,” Merrill said. “Plus, he is handsome.”
Winston spent a short three weeks at the shelter, during which time FHS had him vaccinated and neutered.
The community became involved, helping to send Winston to Florida to see if he qualified, which he did in record time.
Ambrose Mills, a member of American Legion Post 250, heard his commander read a letter from Merrill at a meeting and discovered the Service Animal Project was in need of someone to transport Winston to Florida.
“I said, this is really a worthy cause and an opportunity for the post to do something directly for a veteran,” said Mills.
Mills and his wife, Jeanne, decided to volunteer, and American Legion Post 250 donated funding to help Winston’s transport and for the Service Animal. Project.
Mills said Winston was a good passenger. The dog began in Mills’ SUV in the back with a barrier, but after the barrier fell down, which scared Winston, the dog ended up riding with his head in Jeanne’s lap.
“She (Jeanne) said if Winston doesn’t pass this thing we’re going to keep him,” said Mills.
The Mills expected to stay near Jacksonville, Fla. for three days because that is the normal dog evaluation time for K9s for Warriors, but Winston was chosen in the first three hours. The Mills were on their way home the next day.
“(Winston) dazzled them in the first five minutes,” said Mills.
Winston participated in training in Florida and was recently paired up with a Marine from Virginia. His graduation ceremony is scheduled for September, and Merrill said she hopes to attend.
Many K9s for Warrior service dogs assist veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Shari Duval, K9s for Warriors president, said PTSD can be deadly. Symptoms include anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, isolation and fears of public places. The dogs assist the warriors in all of these areas, Duval said. Because the dogs are considered medical equipment once they are certified, they must be allowed in all public areas.
“We look for dogs so very much like Winston,” Duval said. “It makes our job much easier.”
Service dogs must be in tune with their owner’s emotions, moods and personalities, said Duval. She said the dogs are with the warriors 24 hours a day and even sleep with their owners.
“When a warrior has a nightmare, the dog is right there and automatically wakes the warrior up, bringing them back to the present,” said Duval. “If they are out in public and the warrior gets panicked, or anxious, the dogs sense this and immediately divert their attention, again bringing them back to the present. The dogs are trained to block the warrior both in the front and the rear, preventing anyone approaching his owner too closely. The warriors are very wary of strangers getting too close to them.”
Duval also said K9s for Warriors has placed 32 service dogs with no failures.
Brett Simon, K9s for Warriors director of canine operations, said Winston is a great dog and will change a soldier’s life.
“The warriors’ moods travel right down the leash to the dog,” Simon said. “Winston is a great dog. He will be a life-changing experience for a soldier.”
Service Animal Project volunteers say they want to eventually provide service cats and dogs to various organizations. There are various ways to help with the project, including short-term fostering, transport and funding when other candidates are available.
For more information about helping with the project, send an email to serviceanimalproject@windstream.net.

Winston at the Foothills Humane Society during the tests in Florida that qualified him to join K9s for Warriors, an organization that trains service dogs to help veterans, many of whom suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. (photo submitted by Ambrose Mills)

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