Program matches rescued dogs with disabled vets

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COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Area veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses may soon get help from a rescued dog from the local animal shelter.

"It's really about companionship and helping a veteran," said retired Army Staff Sgt. John Cooper, a volunteer for the Georgia chapter of Pets for Vets. Based in Long Beach, Calif., the nonprofit organization now has 25 chapters across the nation.

Barbara Blair, director of the Georgia chapter in Atlanta, said efforts to help veterans in the Columbus and Fort Benning area are part of the organization's plan. "We are trying to expand down there," Blair said.

Since the program started in Atlanta two years ago, two veterans have been matched with companion dogs.

The program is free and open to any veteran who feels that he or she would benefit from a companion dog. The organization has served veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and emotional issues that keep them up at night.

Veterans who want a dog fill out an application online and a trainer will visit their home. The trainer checks the environment to determine whether there is a backyard or small children at the home. The information helps the trainer to determine what breed of dog would be a match for the veteran, Blair said. "The trainer usually works with three or four different dogs to evaluate them to make sure they get the right fit," she said.

There is no particular breed used by the trainers. They may range from a Chihuahua to a pit bull.

"Some veterans, because of their home environment, a large breed dog wouldn't work for them, but a small breed dog would work perfectly," Cooper said.

After a breed is selected, the trainer gets the dog from the local shelter and finds a foster home for the dog during the six weeks of training. Dogs learn how to act in public and to serve as a companion.

"We get the animal from the shelter based on the veteran's wants and needs," said Cooper, who is a trainer and lives in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

Blair noted the pets are companion dogs, not service dogs that open doors and perform other duties. "They are socialized dogs," she said. "They can go out in public."

Before the dog is presented to the veteran, the pet has all shots updated, is identified with a microchip and equipped with its own crate, feeding bowl, leash, collar and a supply of dog food to get started.

After operating in Atlanta for two years, Pets for Vets recognized a need to serve other areas with a large population of veterans, Blair said. "We really need to be in Columbus, Macon and Augusta," Blair said.

Deamonte Hatcher, who was medically retired in 2011 after an injury in the Army, said she struggled with depression before she was matched with Sid last year. "I was trying to get back into society and the civilian world," she said. "I was more depressed. When they gave me Sid, he is a great dog. They trained him so well. When I'm feeling sad, he will come and sit near me. He will sit there or jump in my lap."

Hatcher of Atlanta said her dog won't allow her to get depressed. "When I have that depression state, he won't leave my side," she said. "It's very good the vets did that for people who are struggling through depression, PTSD or things like that."

Blair said the organization monitors the dogs for a year after they are matched to a veteran. "We want to make sure the dog doesn't go back to the shelter," she said.

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Information from: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, http://ledger-enquirer.com

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