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Program Pairs Dogs, Veterans

July 13, 2012

Photo provided: Pictured is Sandra Bohle’s dog Abby, who inspired the Angel PAWS program, which matches dogs to veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or with physical disabilities.

CELINA — Though Sandra Bohle has owned dogs throughout her life, Abby, a young, rambunctious lab/grayhound mix, proved to be particularly challenging, but Bohle was determined to not give up on the dog.

“From the minute I saw this dog’s little face, I fell in love with her,” Bohle said. “I just felt from the very beginning that she played an important role, but I didn’t know what it would be. I just kept thinking and hearing it in my head, ‘For the love of Abby, for the love of Abby.’”

Abby, she said, was extremely energetic, had a habit of pulling hard on her leash and was scared of other people, but Bohle continued working with Abby.

“I kept saying, ‘No, I’m not going to quit on her. I have faith in her, I believe in her. This is going to work,’” she said. “A lot of patience and time has gone into Abby, and it’s really paying off. She’s like a different animal.”

Now, after extensive training and a determination to not quit, Abby will sit calmly with Bohle. An idea came to Bohle, founder and director of Angels for Veterans, when she was sitting at her computer with Abby laying at her feet. Angels for Veterans, Bohle said, does not quit on people, just as she never quit on Abby, and dogs have great medical and emotional benefits for those who own them. Thus, Angel PAWS was added to the list of outreach programs offered through Angels for Veterans, in which a companion or service dog is matched to veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or physical disabilities.

“Many times, it can be the companionship of a dog, it can be the services a dog can provide — either physical services or emotional services,” she said of the benefits a dog can bring. “Our veterans are so in need of that extra support that these canines offer.”

Through a special bond, Bohle said, the dog can help make the veteran feel safe.

“It’s being learned and observed that by placing a dog with them (veterans), they do much better,” she said. “It’s kind of like the buddy system in combat. They have a buddy that they depend on to have their back and keep them safe, and their dog becomes that buddy.”

She noted she has heard of dogs helping veterans distinguish between a flashback from reality.

“They may have flashbacks of explosions and things happening from war when they’re walking down the street, but they look at their dog and they see the dog isn’t reacting to anything happening, so therefore, they know they’re safe, even though their mind is perceiving that they’re not,” she said.

The dogs, she said, can help veterans become more comfortable in crowds of people, as well.

“For some veterans that have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they’re kind of paralyzed, in a sense, of going to a lot of public places,” she said. “They’re uncomfortable being in groups of people and going to public places, and their dog can change that for them. Their dog, literally, can open doors for them and make them feel loved.”

Dogs that are placed in the Angel PAWS program, Bohle said, are selected from shelters.

“We look at it as a double rescue, she said. “We’re rescuing a dog as well as improving the life of the human owner.”

Dogs accepted into the program go through a screening process, she said.

“We’re not going to take dogs that have aggression issues,” she said. “We look for dogs that are going to be good citizens and good companions and have some helpfulness about them so that they are trainable to be either a good companion dog or a service dog.”

Dogs in Angel PAWS are spayed or neutered and up-to-date on all immunizations. After being selected, the rescue dog then goes through a demanding training process.

“They go through intensive obedience training,” Bohle said. “During that process, they are qualifying to continue on to be a service animal if that is the intent with the rescue of that dog. The time to train that obedience fluctuates from dog to dog ... They go through this intensive training program where they live with the trainer, then they start learning some service work.”

Dogs are then matched up with a veteran, who also has a screening process to go through.

“We have a double responsibility,” Bohle said. “We have a responsibility to give a nicely trained dog to the veterans, as well as we have a responsibility to that dog. We have to know that the dog is going to be placed in an environment that is appropriate.”

To become eligible for a dog through Angels for Veterans, an honorably discharged veteran must fill out paperwork documenting a need for a service or companion dog. The veteran cannot have a history of animal abuse and must also be able to provide a healthy environment for the dog, including regular trips to a veterinarian to continue immunizations. When a dog and a veteran are matched up, the training process continues.

“Trainers do work one-on-one with a veteran, once they have been matched up with a dog,” Bohle said. “The veteran will learn all the commands that the dog has been taught and how to work with the dog.”

When Angels for Veterans and the trainer feel that the dog and veteran are ready to be on their own, a graduation ceremony is held to officially award the dog to the veteran. Angels for Veterans, Bohle said, continues to help the pair after graduation.

Bohle launched Angel PAWS approximately eight months ago and said she is now working to raise money to match dogs with more veterans in the area.

“One of the key things we need is the funds to be able to pay for these dogs,” she said. “Angels for Veterans needs businesses to say, ‘Yes, I want to sponsor a dog.’ Sponsorship will begin at $1,000 and go up to $10,000 ... It can be a business, an individual or an organization. When they sponsor, their name will go on our website as a sponsor, that sponsorship will follow that dog in the sense that I’d like to place Velcro strips on the dog’s vest if it’s a service dog ... Their name will be given acknowledgment as a sponsor.”

Donors are also welcome, she said, noting that any amount can be donated up to $1,000, the point at which a donor becomes a sponsor.

Angel PAWS, she said, is a worthy cause to be involved in.

“To me, Angel PAWS is a very challenging goal and at the same time an extremely rewarding goal,” Bohle said. “I would encourage others to duplicate Angel PAWS because it’s so needed ... There are veterans across the United States on waiting lists for organizations to be able to provide this to them.”

Angels for Veterans is a nonprofit organization, comprised of a group of area volunteers that hope to help veterans in any way they can.

“Anything that the public would like to do to help our organization is deeply appreciated,” Bohle said. “We are all volunteers at Angels for Veterans, we do not take one cent for our services, we do not get paid, including myself as founder and director. All the monies we raise go to our causes.”

In addition to donations, Angels for Veterans is also in need of volunteers.

“I would like to grow Angels for Veterans to other counties and have leadership in those counties doing fundraisers and activities, and I would help train the leadership,” Bohle said. “If anyone is interested in doing that, I would love for them to contact me.”

To make a donation or sponsorship, a letter of interest or check may be sent to Angels for Veterans, P.O. Box 611, Celina, Ohio, 45822. Donations may also be made on the organization’s website, AngelsForVeterans.org. For more information about Angels for Veterans and Angel PAWS, call Bohle at 419-584-0289 or visit AngelsForVeterans.org.

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