Operation Freedom Paws (OFP) is a local non-profit supported by this year’s “Wonderful Witchy Women with a Cause” luncheon fundraiser. Since 2010, OFP has matched rescue dogs with veterans and others who have Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), Complex-Post Traumatic Stress (CPTS) and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) symptoms, or other physical, neurological, psychological or mobility needs. The organization trains the individuals to train their own dogs and certifies them as service dog teams during a 48-week program. This is different from most traditional service dog programs, and has several advantages: it cuts down the multi-year wait for a service dog, it allows the individual and dog to bond from the beginning, and it gives the individuals a sense of purpose.
I recently got the opportunity to do a site visit to witness a two-hour training session at Operation Freedom Paws. Located in San Martin, a 25-minute drive south of San Jose, the facility is located in the country and has multiple indoor and outdoor areas to train and kennel the service dogs as well as dogs from the surrounding community. Janet King, Vice President of OFP and a former client herself, took me around the facility and told me more about the organization. OFP helps veterans and other people with disabilities who can’t wait for a traditional service dog or who can’t afford the hefty price of a pre-trained service dog. The organization was started by President Mary Cortani, a former Marine, when she saw a need for a better approach to get service dogs to disabled veterans. Using her extensive dog training experience, she started training veterans how to train their own dogs.
The beginning training class I visited was a group of about 10 individuals and their dogs who were veterans and people from the community. The class was taught by Jeff, a veteran and former client, who is now a trainer for OFP. I was amazed to see so many different breeds of dogs represented such as a Dachshund, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, and even a Great Dane. Jeff skillfully led the class through many exercises that emphasized attention, consistency, and appropriate correction.
Once fully trained, the dogs are unbelievably talented and are a perfect match for every veteran’s specific need. For example, Janet has a severe peanut allergy and her dog is specifically trained to smell peanuts and to alert Janet by bowing and barking. I was amazed that her dog could smell the peanut butter I ate two days earlier! She said that other dogs have been trained to sense blood sugar levels for people who have diabetes and other people who suffer from severe pain – alerting them before they can sense it themselves.
After class, the veterans convened inside with their dogs for “puppy yoga.” Led by an instructor, the veterans and their dogs were given relaxation exercises to participate in together. This was a great opportunity for them to bond with their dogs and to seek camaraderie from their peers and instructors.
People come to Operation Freedom Paws from all over the West Coast and even sometimes as far away as the Midwest. Individuals with disabilities must have a letter from a doctor recommending a service dog, and after an extensive interview process they are carefully paired with a rescue dog that fits the temperament and specific needs of the person. After this pairing, individuals must train with their dogs at OFP twice a week for about a year. Along with training their dog, they are also provided with individual counseling, group therapy, and a community. One of the most amazing things about OFP is that this process is provided to veterans and other people with disabilities at no cost. Usually, the cost of a reputable service dog is upwards of $10,000.
I was extremely impressed with how Operation Freedom Paws empowers veterans and other people with disabilities, is inclusive to the community, and finds homes for rescue dogs. Janet says, “It doesn’t matter what your issues are. Whether you’re there to obedience-train your dog or you’re there with your service dog, there’s a tremendous amount of support from everybody.” Thank you, Operation Freedom Paws, for the warm welcome, the opportunity to witness your awe-inspiring community firsthand, and the work you continue to do to support local veterans and families in need.
[This is an original post by BVL member, Ellie H., to Witchy Wonderful, the official blog of the Bella Vista League, the non-profit organization behind the annual Wonderful Witchy Women With A Cause luncheon and silent auction. This year’s event will be held on October 27th, 10:30am – 2:00pm, at the Fairmont Hotel, San Jose. Purchase your tickets now and join us!]