EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com is partnering with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s School of Mass Communications. A student from the project reported the following story.
By Jessica Dahlberg (Special to WTVR.com)
RICHMOND, Va. – It is not uncommon for someone to say that a dog is just another member of the family, but for people with disabilities a dog is an essential companion to be able to live an independent life. These service dogs are specially trained for specific tasks and training them can cost thousands of dollars that insurances will not cover, said Susan Kindred, owner of Service Dog 411, a consulting firm in Richmond that helps people in need of service dogs.
“Lots of people who cannot get a service dog are living on disability, have no family support system, and they don’t have the means to self-train their own service dog,” Kindred said. Service dogs are often confused with therapy dogs, but while they are both working dogs, they are very different in what they accomplish for people.
“A service dog is a dog that is trained to perform two to three specific tasks for a single individual with a disability, and a therapy dog is a very well behaved family pet that gives its love in a group setting,” Kindred said.
To help disabled persons with the financial burden of the dog training, the nonprofit organization Dogs for Veterans in Glen Allen is adopting dogs from animal shelters and training them for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries as well as for veterans with physical restrictions that prevent them from doing everyday activities.
“It can cost up to $20,000 and take up to two years to train one of these dogs,” said Terry Griffith, the owner of Dogs for Veterans. “Training varies on how specialized (the dog) has to get.”
Dogs for Veterans receives applications from veterans from all over the country, who are looking for one of its veteran-specific trained dogs. Griffith said that the organization gets up to two to three applications a week and that it has has a waiting list of 25 to 30 people.
The veterans who are currently on the list have a long wait, because the group can only train two dogs at a time. A problem Griffith is trying to fix through donations.
Dogs for Veterans is in the process of trying to obtain funds to build a training facility in Richmond that could cost up to $100,000 to construct. The building would have room to train 12 dogs at a time and would have onsite housing for the veterans to interact with their new dogs for two weeks before leaving.
“The idea is the veterans come to the facilities, bond with the dog and go through all their basic training then and get really comfortable with it, before they take the dog back,” Griffith said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a broader area across the country.”
But when trying to obtain a service dog, there are non-veterans for whom the nonprofit is not an option and self-training a service dog is a great challenge.
Training therapy dogs, on the other hand, has a lower cost, because the dog is required to only know basic commands, said Denise Ekey, the program coordinator for the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the VCU School of Medicine.
“We all know intuitively that our dogs or cats do well for us,” said Ekey. “But the research is showing animal-assisted therapy really can be a great therapeutic tool.”
This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s School of Mass Communications.