As Patriot PAWS staff will tell you, the standards for service dogs are extremely high. 58 percent of the dogs trained through Patriot PAWS pass the test and that's much higher than most dog training organizations.
Training a service dog for a disabled veteran is a two year commitment at least. From puppy raiser to prison boot camp to training center, the dogs are taught everything from confidence and noise desensitization to pulling a wheelchair and getting help for their person.
In 2010, Patriot PAWS became a member and received full accreditation from Assistance Dogs International. ADI is the only accrediting agency in the world for service dog organizations. That means Patriot PAWS can test their own dogs to see if they qualify.
After spending so much time and money working with the dogs, Patriot PAWS staff don't just give up on the ones that don't pass the test. Instead, they give the pup what they call a career change.
“We have dogs that haven't made it in our program, but they become drug sniffing dogs, bomb sniffing dogs some have gone into law enforcement,” said Assistant Executive Director of Patriot Paws Terri Stringer.
One of the dogs that didn't fit as a service dog, but clearly had some amazing potential in other ways, is Roper.
“He was the dog that if you told him to go get the phone, he'd bring you back a racquetball. And so he was just a silly, goofy Golden Retriever,” Stringer said.
Trainers at Patriot PAWS quickly realized Roper was better suited to work with children than a disabled veteran.
“He is a career-changed dog. He is now working with the Dallas DA's office and he's working as a child advocate, where he is working with 30-40 abused children every week,” said Stringer.
Then there's Nick, a dog all the Patriot PAWS trainers are a little jealous of. Nick didn't make it as a service dog because he always had his nose to the ground. Patriot PAWS staff realized it's a quality that makes him perfect for searches, but Nick's not your typical search and rescue dog.
“Because he is now a conservationist dog, living in the Galapagos Islands where he sniffs out invasive snails that damage the ecosystem,” Stringer said.
Many dogs from Patriot PAWS that can't pass the service dog test find other ways to help veterans. That's what happened with Casey, an Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress.
“Basically, once he came back he couldn't deal with the world. And his wife lost her husband, the children lost their father and he found that the only place he really felt comfortable was sitting in the dark in a closet or a bathroom and he'd sit there for hours,” said Stringer.
Casey and his family visited Patriot PAWS hoping they could find a way to get the struggling veteran to step out of the shadows.
“By the end of the conversation, Lori said, ‘Why today Casey? What's special about today? What made you come in today?’ And he said, ‘Because today I realized I like the darkness better than the light.’ And at that point Lori said we've got to get this guy a dog. 22 veterans a day commit suicide and she just saw him on that list,” Stringer said.
Patriot Paws Founder Lori Stevens knew she had to find a dog quickly, but there were already 96 veterans on the waiting list ahead of Casey.
“There are truly nights that I go home and I worry about a veteran all night long. ‘What am I going to do about this guy?’ We have a long waiting list,” Stevens said.
In this case, she made an exception.
“We can't let a veteran that is on the edge of suicide sit on a waiting list for a long time,” said Stevens.
“There was a dog that was not going to make it through the program because he was what we call a Velcro dog, so he would just adhere to a person, which in Casey's case was perfect,” Stringer said.
When Casey met Tyndall the two had an immediate bond.
“The next time I saw Casey was about six months later. He came up here and he was sitting in our conference table laughing and talking to everybody,” said Stringer.
It's stories like that which makes training the dogs worth it, because even if they don't pass the service dog test, they get to change somebody's life.
To donate, volunteer, apply for a dog or learn more about Patriot PAWS visit patriotpaws.org and you can see everything that our Patriot PAWS puppy Tommy is doing (from his training to where he's been visiting) on our website here.