An elderly veteran, at home alone, suddenly experienced a stroke. He fell to the floor, unable to speak and barely able to move. His cell phone was not nearby. He knew that if help didn’t come soon, he’d die.
That’s when his Patriot Paws dog went into action.
“After he fell, the dog helped him get to the chair,” says Lori Stevens, Executive Director and founder of Patriot Paws. “When she saw he wasn’t acting right, she went and got his phone and placed it in his right hand, just as we’d trained her to do.”
But the man kept dropping the phone. The stroke had affected his right hand as well as his speech center; he couldn’t tell the dog what to do. “So she took the phone back in her mouth and brought it to his left hand, and he managed to call 911,” Lori says. “That veteran is alive today because of one of our dogs.”
Reading the Signs
It’s just one of hundreds of heartwarming Patriot Paws success stories. This Rockwall, Texas-based organization provides veterans with dogs trained in highly specialized ways to improve and even save their lives. “We get as many as 400 veterans a month asking for help,” says Lori. “They want something that doesn’t come in a pill bottle.”
Lori is a dog trainer who had worked with a service dog organization in the past. She founded Patriot Paws when she came to a crossroads in her life: Her son had been deployed, and her father was passing away. “I was at a loss,” she says. “I heard about eight veterans down at the Dallas Department of Veterans Affairs, all of them with spinal cord injuries, trying to train their own dogs.” While standing in a parking lot with one of her dogs, she saw a man in a wheelchair with his dog. “That dog came flying across the parking lot to say hello to my dog, and brought that man in the wheelchair right to me,” Lori says. “It was a sign.”
Help Comes From a Surprising Source
The group started with a team of dogs donated by shelters and breeders and not nearly enough trainers to meet the veterans’ needs. Help came from a surprising source: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “They said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of people who’d love to help.’”
That was the start of Patriot Paws prison program. Inmates were taught to train Patriot Paws dogs to provide 55 basic service behaviors, which in turn increased the number of dogs that could be trained and significantly cut down on training time. This meant more veterans got dogs faster.
Another bonus is that the inmates learn a skill that can help them get a job when released, thereby reducing the rate of recidivism. And the presence of the dogs greatly improves prison life for both inmates and the corrections officers. “We’ve had prison officials from as far away as Poland come to us to study Patriot Paws prison program,” Lori says. “I always joke that for three months our dogs go to prison, and for the next three months they go to college.”
Because life on the inside isn’t like life on the outside, after dogs receive basic training from the inmates, they’re sent to live for three months with Texas A&M student volunteers. “They go everywhere with their assigned students,” Lori says. “Their dorm rooms, classes, parties, football games, on campus buses. This prepares them for life at home with their veteran.”
PetSmart Charities Grant Provides Important Funding
Patriot Paws trainers visit each veteran at home to find out about their particular needs. “We had a young man in his early thirties who came home from Iraq burned over 75 percent of his body, with both hands gone,” Lori remembers. “He said it was humiliating to have to ask his kids to open doors for him and pick up things he dropped, but mostly, he just wanted to go to the restroom by himself. He didn’t want to have to ask his seven-year-old child to pull up his pants. And yes, we did train his dog to do that for him.”
After a dog is sent home with his or her veteran, a days-long follow up visit is scheduled to make sure everything goes well. Lives depend on it.
As you can imagine, all this effort takes money—and that’s where PetSmart Charities funding has helped.
“I was introduced to Patriot Paws about five years ago,” says Tony Portolano, a PetSmart District leader in the area. “I was so moved by how much positive impact they have on people.”
The funding goes to defrays the organization’s costs, with everything from the extensive training to the supply-filled backpack each veteran receives on graduation day. A nonprofit organization, Patriot Paws relies on contributions such as the PetSmart Charities grant to stay afloat.
The dogs, meanwhile, only want to help and give love.
“The veterans who fought for our freedom just want a little of their own freedom back. We want to give them that independence,” Lori says. “The dogs just think they’re doing the best thing in the world by helping.”