A unique project in northeast Iowa uses college students to help train service dogs who will eventually be paired with military veterans or children with special needs. Professor Susan Vallem uses her Military Culture class at Wartburg College in Waverly to teach her social work students about the various branches of the military.
This year’s class includes a professional dog trainer in the hope that the discipline and patience needed to graduate will transfer between students and their canine companions. “When I was putting this class together about a year ago, I was looking for some kind of military related service project so the students would be active, as well as just learning in the classroom,” Vallem explains.
Each Tuesday and Thursday, Scott Dewey brings seven dogs from nonprofit organization Retrieving Freedom to Wartburg’s campus to learn socialization and trust. Dewey says the young people with no prior dog handling skills are the best fit for the program.
“Because you can train these dogs and train these dogs, but the ultimate goal is who they go with. And the more personalities and the more people that can they stand can stand next to and perform the duties, the more ready they are to go to their final recipient, whether that be a veteran or a child with autism,” Dewey says.
Army veteran Chad Johnson of Shell Rock served three tours of duty with the National Guard and says Copper, a graduate of the program, has changed his life Johnson says, “I have high levels of anxiety due to combat stress and he has helped me for where I’m off medication now, anti-depressants. And also I’m able to go out to public areas and feel more comfortable and I’m more at ease to sleep at night now.”
Johnson is helping to offset the cost of his dog by coming to the class and offering tips to the students as they take the dogs through their paces. During one class Kirstie McDonald worked with a rust colored golden retriever named Zeke.
“We’re trying to get him to learn how to nudge when we say nudge because he will likely be placed with a girl who has Turrets. Different dogs are learning other things like not to eat treats off the ground,” McDonald says. “It’s a lot of fun but it’s also frustrating because sometimes they don’t like to listen.”
Eventually the dogs will spend all day on campus with the students. And after around eight months to two years of instruction, they’ll be placed in a new home. Dewey says it’s rewarding to witness the process from puppy to adult and to know that his animals will help heal wounds both visible and hidden.
But as satisfying as that is, getting them ready for prime time is expensive — with a cost estimated as high as $10,000 each when you include dog food, veterinary bills and training.
“Because it’s a constant battle of making sure you got enough to operate next year so you don’t go under. I think at some point we’ll be past that but right now, that’s where we’re at,” Dewey says. Dewey says the organization is attempting to generate enough money to build a larger facility that will enable those who are matched with the dogs to spend time with them before they become part of the family.
Retrieving Freedom has so far placed 15 dogs, mostly with veterans but some with children who have special needs.