Behind the scenes with Freedom Service Dogs
July 31, 2013
Recently, while at the 2013 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, I had the privilege of talking with Walter Ernst of Freedom Service Dogs (FSD), a member of the WTC Community Support Network. FSD is one of many Community Support Network organizations connecting wounded, ill, or injured Soldiers and Veterans with service dogs.
Ernst, a retired Air Force pilot, has been serving on the FSD board of directors since 2010. He agreed to answer some questions about FSD, how they operate and the clients they serve. He spoke openly and passionately about how FSD is making a difference in the lives of those with disabilities.
Q. How did FSD get started?
A. FSD is a Denver-based non-profit, Assistance Dogs International (ADI) certified organization that provides certified service dogs to clients at no charge. It was founded in 1987 by a husband and wife team, Michael and PJ Roche. Mike, a paramedic, was severely injured during an ambulance run, rendering him a quadriplegic. As a canine obedience trainer, his wife recognized how an assistance dog would enable Mike to regain his independence and enhance his mobility. Inspired by their own success with a trained dog, the Roches founded FSD to offer increased independence to others with disabilities.
Q. Tell me how FSD gets their dogs.
A. We get our dogs from shelters in several of the western states. The dog's ages vary between one-to-two years, weigh between 50-90 lbs and are typically mixed breeds because their life span is longer. We have a wide variety of mixed breeds in training but we prefer dogs that are a Retriever mix because they're smart.
Q. What is the screening and training process for dogs in your program?
A. When we first get a dog, we keep it isolated from other new dogs, to do a medical evaluation and personality assessment. If the dog passes the initial evaluation, they go into a four-level training program which lasts 7-12 months. They start by learning basic commands and progress on to advanced training and custom tasks. On weekends while in training, we foster the dogs out to approved, volunteer homes so we can keep them socialized.
Our dogs are trained to assist people with different types of mobility challenges such as spinal cord injuries, stroke victims, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, as well post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and children with autism and Down syndrome.
Once a person is approved for a dog there's a 12 -- 18 month lead time from the initial request to when they actually receive their companion. About 40 percent of those on our wait list are servicemembers.
Q. How many dogs do you process throughout a year?
A. About one out of every three dogs makes it through our program at an average cost to FSD of $25,000 per dog. We rescue over 100 dogs each year and at any given time, we have between 35-45 dogs in training at our campus in Englewood. Those that don't make it through the program are put up for adoption. We don't euthanize any of our animals.
Q. How long are owners allowed to keep their dogs?
A. Our clients keep their dogs for the lifetime of the animal, but when the dog becomes too old to perform tasks, it is retired and we provide a 'successor' dog for that client.
Q. How do you fund your program?
A. Our funding comes from private donations so there is an ongoing concern about how are we going to continue to operate? Creating awareness is vital to our existence and because we don't charge our clients, we are always looking for sponsors and ways to raise money to offset our costs.
FSD has a full time training staff, but one way they have found to control costs is to rely on dependable volunteers and the Colorado Prison Trained K9 Companion Program (PTKCP) to help in the initial stages of training the dogs. In addition, once a dog is matched with a client, FSD has a hands-on program known as "Train the Trainer". This program entails a 2 ½ week training course to teach the client or owner how to interact with and continue to train their dog once they have taken them home.
Q. What is the most frustrating part of being involved with a non-profit such as yours?
A. The bureaucracy, lack of communication and funding can make things tough.
Q. What do you find to be the most rewarding part of this program?
A. The graduation ceremony. We have three-to-four ceremonies a year to celebrate the successful placement of dogs with their owners. To see the bond they share can be very emotional.
Thank you to Mr. Ernst and Freedom Service Dogs for providing some insight into their program. If you would like more information about Freedom Service Dogs please visit their website at www.freedomservicedogs.org.
Disclaimer: Refer to Army Directive 2013-01 for information and guidelines on "Service" and "Therapy" dogs.