Service-Dog Training for Veterans
By A.J. Johnson
Helping Service Members Regain a Sense of Self-Worth
I first met Sherri Waters in early April 2014, upon the advice of my next-door neighbor. They were training a German Shepherd that was helping them with their PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms suffered from their tour of duty in the marines. They recommended that I talk to Sherri to see if I would be a good candidate for a service dog to help with my own struggles of PTSD and bipolar disorder.
Waters has had her own private dog-training business since 2001. She began using her skills to help her deal with her own issues of PTSD. But her desire to help others with post-traumatic stress was only matched by the need she saw arising with the war in Afghanistan.
“I wanted to do something for our wounded, because they’re the reason we have everything. So one day I was standing in line at Petco, and I ended up behind a combat corpsman that was looking for dog training. He was a wounded warrior, and I said, 'I’ll help train your dog for you for free.' I started training his dog, and then he started bringing his friends, one by one, and we started a little class about five or six of us initially, and it was like, I got my in, I get to do this for them now.”
With that small beginning, Sherri’s project, Wounded Warrior Pack, was born and has recently acquired their 501c3 certification. They’ve grown to over 100 active clients, with a healthy staff of over twenty. Most of the people working for the project are fellow veterans like Sherri who go through the program and stick around once they graduate.
With an unofficial motto of “We help the hell out of you,” Waters is constantly surprised at the outpouring of love and support the project has received. From fostering dogs to helping families in need with food, shelter, or even getting furniture for their homes, the “Pack” works hard for its clients.
The small project, a labor of love for both Sherri and her husband Joe, is something that she says is nothing short of a miracle. And it’s no small feat what they’ve done. With branches now in Bakersfield, California as well as Michigan, Texas and New Mexico, the Pack focuses on veterans who suffer from combat-related PTSD as well as military sexual traumas. The intention is to expand, but on their own terms, to continue helping with the same level of quality.
Each veteran is initially interviewed for candidacy to be accepted into the program. After a check of credentials, a veteran is either placed with a dog, or they are recommended to a shelter where there is a possible match for them for a dog.
Once the dog is cleared to begin training, all the handlers and their dogs go through a three-stage training process where they are taught basic obedience, distance, and specialized skills before they graduate from the course and are considered a fully functional service dog/handler. Sometimes the course can take a few months; sometimes it can take longer depending on a variety of factors.
Upon graduation, they are awarded a certificate, and legal paperwork to certify their training as well as a patch and a healthy dose of accomplishment. Sherri feels that giving the handler and the dog a certificate adds an element of legitimacy to the program, although according to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, it is not necessary.
If you take a look around at the people who are a part of the Pack, it is easy to see how Sherri’s love and determination shine through in her work. It’s an example of how a labor of love may start small but can build and grow into the stuff that dreams are made of. Veterans and service members alike are flocking in to see her, to become a part of her little slice of heaven as I call it, to gain a sense of safety and independence that was once lost.
There are veterans who have lost limbs and the ability to walk. And then there are people who have lost something that can’t be seen that make them just as vulnerable and in need of a service dog as anyone else. And it’s because of the gratitude of one woman for her fellow service members that the rest of us can regain our sense of self worth and the ability to stand on our own two feet again.