Patriot PAWS helping veterans in need

FOX 7 is welcoming a very special member to our team. We’re “PAWtnering” with Patriot PAWS to help socialize and train a service dog named Tommy.

Tommy will be spending time at the station but will also be making visits around town like when he recently went to City Hall to attend a meeting for Honor Flight Austin.

Eight staff members are going through the training process with Tommy. Tommy will spend time with them at their homes and his training will go beyond obedience training.

Service dogs must be trained to be patient and work with their trainers so that one day they can be matched with a veteran with mobility or unseen disabilities.

You can follow Tommy over the next four months on his training adventure on our FOX 7 Patriot PAWS page.

FOX 7 will continue to follow Tommy once he leaves for more training at a state prison facility where an inmate will continue his training.

Tommy is just one of the dogs that the nonprofit organization Patriot PAWS trains to help veterans in need.

Patriot PAWS founder Lori Stevens has been saving lives with the help of her four legged friends for more than a decade now.

“Back in 2005, I met some disabled veterans at the Dallas VA and they were trying to train their own dogs and they asked for help. I'd been training service dogs for years with another organization and it just touched my heart,” Stevens says.

Stevens, who had a father who was a veteran and a son headed to his first deployment, had a soft spot for those who’ve served. That’s why she had the idea to start a nonprofit that trains service dogs for disabled veterans.

“I knew that dogs could make a difference in your life,” Stevens says. She founded Patriot PAWS in 2006 with four volunteers and no waiting list.

“We've placed dogs with veterans from WWII, our oldest veteran was 89 when he got his dog, to present day wars. Our youngest veteran was 22,” Patriot PAWS Assistant Executive Director Terri Stringer says.

Now more than 100 veterans are in line to get a dog from the organization.

“There’s a lot of veterans that need it now today,” Stevens says.

Shortly after starting Patriot PAWS, Stevens realized how desperately many veterans needed some support.

“We think of veterans we see them out riding their motorcycles or doing something. You'd never believe how many are locked in their houses that won't come out,” Stevens says. ”Those are the ones that called or emailed crying for our help each and every day.”

There have been some struggles along the way. Training the service dogs takes two to five years. That’s a long time for someone who can’t find the strength to face the world.

Stevens says, “There are truly nights that I go home and I worry about a veteran all night long. What am I gonna do about this guy? We have a long waiting list.”

While they wait, veteran outreach coordinators check in with them, invite them to events and offer to have them volunteer at the facility.

Patriot PAWS Veteran Coordinator and Army Veteran Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Mixell says, “Two years is a long time so we get on the phones we call them I just wanted to see how your day was sometimes the difference between being barricaded and suicide is somebody saying I care.”

The dogs start training at just eight to ten weeks of age and for the next two years, volunteer puppy raisers and inmates at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice help teach the puppies everything from confidence to tasks that make life a little easier for veterans with physical ailments or emotional disorders.

“Chief helps me up and down stairs so I can't go up and down stairs. I can't put my head below my heart so he picks things up off the ground, brings me my shoes, regulates most of my medication, taps me when I get really stressed and takes me out of those situations,” Mixell says.

By partnering with the State of Texas, Patriot PAWS cut the cost of training the dogs almost in half. But it still takes about $35,000 to get each pup ready. That’s where sponsors, donations and volunteers come in.

“The only expense to the veterans ever is for them to they have to commit to coming here for ten days for the graduation,” Stringer says.

After graduation, the veteran takes their new best friend with them.

That’s when the healing truly begins and once struggling veterans finally get a new “leash” on life.

Patriot PAWS hopes to expand so they can get more dogs to veterans in need in less time. To donate, apply or find out more about their services head to the Patriot PAWS website here.