By Kathleen Vogtle, NAMI Communications Coordinator
Shepherds for Lost Sheep was founded in 2012 in Colville, Wash., by veterans hoping to enrich the lives of fellow veterans who are dealing with physical and psychological injuries. Their method of choice? Man’s best friend.
Since 2012, the organization has grown rapidly. “In our first year, we were able to train and work with 10 veterans and their families,” says Maggie McDonough, vice president of Shepherds for Lost Sheep. “We had dogs in four states: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina. Last year, 2013, was our second year, and we had 46 teams—veterans and their service dogs. The dogs were placed in 28 states.”
Shepherds for Lost Sheep gained its name from the lived experience of its first veterans. McDonough explains that they were used to being around military working dogs, which are usually German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois or Labradors, and wished to have a service dog that was of a familiar breed. However, as veterans’ needs and desires changed, the organization shifted to accommodate them.
“In the beginning, we were working with reputable breeders to get our first set of dogs,” says McDonough. “The program has evolved to provide other breeds and mixed breeds.” The primary goal is to make sure that there is a good connection between the veteran and the service animal. “We can formulate a specialized training schedule for each of our dogs, again dependent on the needs of the veteran. We also work very closely with their families, their support systems, and especially their mental health or primary care doctor,” says McDonough.
According to McDonough, what makes Shepherds for Lost Sheep unique is its primary focus on the mental well-being of veterans. “The goal of these dogs is to provide the veteran with a 24-hour constant, reassuring, canine partner to help mitigate their symptoms,” she says. “Once placed with the individual veteran, these dogs will help to keep the veteran focused, help them reenter life by mitigating their condition and give them something [to focus on] other than their symptoms.”
Their efforts are certainly having a powerful impact. McDonough tells a story of a veteran who was home bound for six months before applying to the program; his first two visits with his dog were in his living room. Now, one year later, he is an active participant in his local Wounded Warrior Project Peer Facilitated Support Group, is driving himself to appointments and, most recently, was able to take his grown son out hunting, something his son had been wanting to do with him for years.
These moments of hope are not isolated incidents.
Steven Novosad, a foster parent of dogs for the organization, helped care for a Belgian Malinois named Felix. Despite the dog’s trouble-making (he once stole a whole pecan pie and the leftovers from a de-boned turkey at Thanksgiving), he was paired with a veteran from Utah. “The veteran says that Felix gave him back his life,” says Novosad.
The dogs are not only changing the lives of veterans, but the lives of all those who are part of the program. “Everyone involved with Shepherds for Lost Sheep is humbled every day by the tenacity and drive each of our veterans gains in our program,” says McDonough. “We are often told that we are able to give them ‘hope again’ where they had given up.
“We are veterans from multiple eras or are family members of veterans,” she adds. “All are committed to helping and enhancing the lives of other veterans. Some have service dogs of their own, and the rest live with veterans who have service dogs. It is about ‘paying it forward,’ helping veterans create a ‘new normal.’ Only someone who has walked in the shoes of a wounded veteran can understand what they go through when they return [a] different [person] than [when] they left.”
Riding the wave of the program’s ongoing success, McDonough sees the organization growing to encompass volunteer trainers in all 50 states, and she sees that many veterans who have received a dog will have gone on to train dogs for other veterans. Ultimately, though, she wants to see awareness of service dogs and the benefits of their use increasing within communities across the country.
“Outreach to our veterans is a continual need. It doesn’t simply end once the veteran and the dog are paired,” she says. “We offer a network of support through similar experiences and commonalities. Our veterans begin to form relationships with one another, thereby increasing [their] success rate in adapting and reintegrating back into society. Veterans and active-duty members write a blank check to this country for ‘up to and including their life.’ It is up to us to return the favor when they come home wounded.”
If you would like to learn more about this program, please visit www. shepherdsforlostsheepinc.org. Shepherds for Lost Sheep is accepting applications for veterans in need of a service animal, as well as for volunteer trainers. You can also donate to assist the service dogs as they go through the training process. Extra toys, blankets and dog treats always help, too.
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