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Paws For Veterans

Vietnam War veteran Bob Sable of Waverly said he didn’t get to choose his new service dog, Bones. Instead, Bones chose him.

“At my first (training) class, they had three dogs picked out that they thought might be a good fit for me. Bones put his chin up on my knee and looked up at me, and I thought, yeah, he’s mine,” said Sable, with his Retriever, Bones, laying at his feet.

When Bones heard his name, he sat up and nudged Sable’s hands with his head, almost as if on cue. Sable reached down and rubbed behind Bone’s floppy ears. “That’s a boy. Yeah, you’re a good dog. Good boy,” Lyle said back affectionately.

Bones is a few months away from graduating from Retrieving Freedom, a non-profit in Waverly that trains service dogs to help veterans, children with autism and people with diabetes.

Bremer County Farm Bureau member Scott Dewey founded Retrieving Freedom in 2011, along with co-founder and fellow trainer Charles Dwyer, who runs a kennel in Senatobia, Mississippi.

The two met on the competitive dog circuit. Dewey once ran a for-profit kennel in Minnesota, training dogs for hunting and American Kennel Club competitions, before moving to Waverly to launch Retrieving Freedom.

“I wanted to be off the road more,” Dewey explained. “And I knew there were things that the dogs could be doing above and beyond competitive events.

“We saw there was a pretty big need coming from a lot of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical disabilities. And there wasn’t enough supply out there of dogs.”

Dewey isn’t a veteran, but his younger brother, an Army vet, completed multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dewey heard about how many military vets struggle with PTSD when they return home. And he knew that dogs could help.

“The big problem is just reintegrating back into society. A lot of these (vets) were 10 years on deployments, back and forth, back and forth. Everything that they’ve seen; everything that they’ve been through. The divorce rate is extremely high,” Dewey said. “There is nothing else that we can put with these guys that can go with them — a living being that can follow them 24 hours a day, seven days a week — that is always there for them.”

It takes two years for Dewey and his volunteers to train the service dogs. Most of the dogs are Labrador Retrievers, a breed typically viewed as friendly to the public, Dewey explained.

Starting when they are puppies, Dewey trains the dogs to develop their patience, obedience and socialization skills for about 12 to 15 months. Then in the last six months, a dog is paired with a  veteran and is trained to perform tasks to meet the vet's specific needs.

Lyle Dean, a Vietnam veteran from Dunkerton, said his service dog, Murphy, can pick up and carry his prosthetic leg to him. Murphy also stands or sits in front or behind Dean when they are waiting in line or in a crowded room, to protect Dean’s personal space.  “I don’t like crowds at all. I just don’t,” Dean explained.

Dean said that whenever he’s visiting a restaurant, he usually asks for a table in the back against the wall, away from other people. But now with Murphy by his side, he isn’t afraid to sit in the center of the dining area anymore.

“If it weren’t for Murphy, I wouldn’t be out and about. I’d be sitting at home, staying in the house,” Dean said. “But with Murphy, I’m starting to gradually get out.”

Sable agreed that his dog, Bones, helps calm his nerves. “My wife told me — and she’s right — that I have a nervous habit. When I get riled up, I start tapping my fingers on the table. Now when I tap my fingers, (Bones) comes up and nudges my hand,” Sable said.

To earn their dogs, the veterans must take part in intensive, one-on-one training with their new canine companions at the Retrieving Freedom facility in Waverly.

The veterans also bring their dogs to a weekly leadership class at Wartburg College in Waverly. The students help socialize the puppies by walking the dogs around campus, taking them inside buildings, climbing up and down staircases, navigating crowded sidewalks — and ignoring the random squirrel or lawnmower that crosses their path.

Before taking the dogs outside, the vets sit side-by-side with the college students in a classroom, with the dogs laying at their feet.

The youngest pups yelp or bark occasionally, trying to run across the room. But when the students command “Uh-huh” or “Sit,” the puppies obey — at least for a few seconds.

Leading the class was Chad Johnson of Shell Rock, a veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard who served for 14 years, including three deployments in Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan.

When one of the puppies, Mia, wouldn’t stop barking, Johnson calmed her down in a soothing voice and a peanut butter treat as a reward for good behavior.

“De-stress yourself. Smile. Be positive. Because if you’re not, they aren’t going to work with you,” Johnson said.

A little over a year ago, when Johnson attended his first dog-training class at Wartburg, he sat in a corner, with a new puppy in his lap. He couldn’t bring himself to look or talk to anyone else in the classroom.
Today, Johnson is standing confidently in front of the class, leading training exercises and quizzing the students. All the while, his service dog, Bender, stays by his side.

Johnson insists that Bender changed his life for the better after he retired from military service and was diagnosed with PTSD.

Whenever Johnson has a nightmare when he’s sleeping, or a flashback during the day, Bender can sense it. The dog will put his paws on Johnson’s legs and stay with him until he falls back asleep or calms down.

“I was on three to five different medications. I was at counseling all the time. Before that, I was drinking to avoid too much and staying at home. And I didn’t like that. I didn’t like being on the medication, because I was like a zombie,” Johnson said.

“Now I’m in little to no counseling; I do see someone if I need to. I’m on no medication. Zero. I don’t feel like a zombie anymore. I can go out in public, and that’s because I have a dog. It’s helped me.”

Johnson said he’s also formed friendships with the other veterans who are going through the training at Retrieving Freedom. That's why Johnson volunteers as much free time as he can to help care for the service dogs — and his fellow vets.

“The dogs help (veterans) get out again so they can start living. They are getting their freedom back in an instant,” Johnson said.