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Harley’s Heroes: Training Service Dogs for Central New York Veterans with PTSD

Harley’s Heroes: Training Service Dogs for Central New York Veterans with PTSD

Robert Wilder went to the Syracuse football game against Connecticut on Sept. 22. He made it until halftime before he had to leave because of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Wilder has difficulty handling crowds due to his PTSD after serving in the Navy for 22 years. After his wife saw a segment on the news about a program for Central New York veterans to train their own service dogs, Wilder adopted Pepper, a black mutt from Helping Hounds shelter in Dewitt, and started the dog training program.

Wilder is participating in Clear Path for Veterans’ new six-month Harley’s Heroes program, where dog trainers teach veterans ways to communicate and bond with their dog.

A new study shows that service dogs can make a significant difference for veterans with PTSD. According to the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal in April 2018, service dogs can help veterans monitor their surroundings. They can also ground them during moments of panic and stress and help them develop a physical and emotional connection.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines a service dog as an animal that is trained to complete certain tasks for a person with a disability.

Federal law under the ADA states that businesses must allow service dogs wherever customers are allowed. The ADA says that a service animal must be trained to help an individual with a disability. However, the law does not specify that the animal needs to be licensed or certified.

Nicole Soule, the main dog trainer at Clear Path for Veterans, explained how the program bridges the gap between veterans simply owning a dog and fully-trained service dogs.

“Basically, what we’re doing is teaching handlers learning theory and how to communicate with their dogs,” Soule said. “Just an understanding of being able to navigate situations they may come across with their dogs.”

Soule explained the advantage of veterans training their own service dog.

“If they are actually teaching their dog to do these things for them, it’s such a strong bond,” Soule said.

The program isn’t just about training the dogs. It’s training the veterans, too.

Erica Collins, a 39-year-old Navy Veteran, sat with Bravo, one of the service dogs Clear Path for Veterans is raising. Collins has short brown hair, tattoos and was quick to offer a smile.

Collins is participating in Harley’s Heroes to gain more independence. She loves hiking but is unable to go alone with her PTSD. She hopes someday she will have a dog to go with her. Collins enjoys going to the weekly classes at Clear Path for Veterans, where she feels a sense of belonging.

“When you get out of the military you kind of lose that sense of camaraderie, and it’s nice to be around people that get you,” Collins said.

If the veteran and dog complete the Harley’s Heroes program, the dog graduates as a trained companion animal. From there, they can choose to complete the Vets2Dogs program. Here, the pair will go through more rigorous training and take the CGC exam to become a service dog.

“We set them up for the best success: learning what you can do with your dog, not necessarily having to take them to service,” Soule said. “It’s about how they can help at home and in general.”

Harley’s Heroes differs from national organizations. Harley’s Heroes allows veterans themselves to train the dog. Other national organizations like America’s VetDogs raises and trains the dogs before placing them with people. Veterans spend two weeks learning how to work with the service dogs after they have been trained, according to their website.

“They’re benefiting from the dog throughout the entire training process, instead of having to wait and getting a dog placed to them,” Soule said.

Dogs that graduate from Harley’s Heroes are considered trained companion animals, not service dogs, because they have not gone through the rigorous training and CGC tests set forth by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), according to Erin Brisson, another dog trainer for Harley’s Heroes. The company has established standards for service dog training widely accepted and followed by many service dog programs nationally.

woman with service dogs in training

Erin Brisson, a dog trainer at Clear Path for Veterans, is raising Bravo to be a service dog.

“Why we have Harley’s Heroes: not every dog is going to make it to service, which a lot of people don’t understand,” Soule said. “Instead of letting the veterans get their hopes so high and are set on that service, we just want to focus on what they can get out of their dog and what the dog can get from them.”

Wilder spoke softly and paused before each sentence. He grasped Pepper’s leash in one hand and his eyes darted around the room as he spoke. He said that the classes have helped him teach people he encounters with Pepper about approaching service dogs.

“I wish there was more education for the public, about what they are and what their purpose, definitely the do’s and don’ts,” Wilder said.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Service Dogs

Information from HealthyPets

Do’s:

  • Speak to the owner, not the dog
  • Ask the owner to pet the dog
  • Treat the owner and dog with respect

Don’ts:

  • Touch the dog without asking the owner for permission
  • Let your own too close to the service dog
  • Give a service dog food

Looking for a good place to walk your service dog? Check out the best places to walk your dog in Central New York.

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