Patriot PAWS: Service Dogs for Disabled Veterans
Highly trained, four-legged friends do more than just provide companionship —they serve our heroes.
Man’s Best Friend Turned Helper
Ever since she was a child, Lori Stevens has loved dogs for their unconditional love, loyalty, devotion, and friendship. Her love for dogs grew into a career and she became a certified professional dog trainer. In 2005, her son joined the military following in his grandfather’s footsteps which further solidified her admiration for those who serve our country.
That same year, several disabled veterans contacted her for help to train their dogs. “After working with these veterans and visiting the VA Hospital in Dallas, I realized just how many of our disabled veterans are in desperate need of assistance dogs and I knew I had to help,” recalls Stevens.
Watch this short video of Stevens on the importance of the work they do…
It started in 2006 in a small storefront in Rockwall, Texas, where Stevens and a few friends opened up Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, a privately funded non-profit organization. They had the capacity to train only eight dogs at a time, not nearly enough to fill the many requests they received. That tiny storefront eventually outgrew itself and in 2010, they moved to a larger site that allowed them to expand their operations in 2017 to include a spacious 3-acre campus complete with administrative offices, a state-of-the-art climate controlled, indoor/outdoor 28-run kennel facility, an on-site veterinary clinic, a dedicated training facility and a brand new Veterans’ House where veterans and their service dogs can stay while on campus for training.
The new Rockwall Training Facility and Campus allows for more dogs to be housed, trained, and placed with veterans in need. Along with this increase, many volunteers came to assist the small staff in all facets of running the organization. Today, Patriot PAWS has expanded to 30 states with over 400 volunteers and placed 200 dogs at no cost to veterans.
Creative Partnerships and Programs
As founder and executive director, Stevens is the voice that drives awareness and donations, along with creating programs, and forming partnerships. Many organizations such as Purina Pro Plan, Toyota, Capital One, Pepsico, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas provide financial support, product donations, and volunteer services.
“Through our new facility and the programs we’ve created, we are able to care for and train more than 80 dogs at a time, program-wide. As a result, we placed a record number of 42 Patriot PAWS Service Dogs with disabled veterans and others in 2018,” Stevens says.
The primary program Patriot PAWS offers is the Service Dog Training Program in which dogs, as young as 8 weeks old, begin immediate training for up to two years and are matched to application requests submitted by their future owners.In 2008, an innovative Prison Training Program was formed in collaboration with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TCDJ) allowing service dog training within three state prison units. Inmates are provided the opportunity to learn a new vocation while they live with and train Patriot PAWS Service Dogs during their incarceration. The benefits for inmates, TDCJ, service dogs, and disabled veterans are immense and the program’s success has become a model for other prison systems nationwide.
A satellite program called Patriot PAWS of Aggieland was set up as an official student organization at Texas A&M University in 2013. Students can help raise and train service dogs. Over 500 students have participated in the program and membership grows each year.
Another program is the Volunteer Puppy Raiser Program which allows both full-time and weekend puppy raising. Full-timers live and work with dogs-in-training for 3 to 4 months at a time teaching them house manners, socializing them in public places, and reinforcing their existing service dog training cues. Weekenders bring dogs home for short periods of time for socializing and play while still maintaining proper training.
The PTSD Dog Training Program is a one-year training program for older dogs. They learn basic cues plus specific cues to aid those with PTSD.
There’s even a Veterans for PAWS Corps allowing veterans to volunteer and help other veterans through the service dog program. Veterans can spend time with service dogs, be involved with projects, and visit other veterans in an inviting environment, a place where they are always welcome.
It costs $35,000 to fully train and certify a Patriot PAWS Service Dog, and this is entirely supported by donations. Dogs are carefully selected from breeders and shelters and undergo temperament assessments before being accepted into the training program. Each dog begins training at the main campus and rotates throughout the different training programs for the 18 to 24 months, with the goal of eventually being paired and trained to help with the personal needs of its future veteran.
Patriot PAWS Service Dogs are trained to work with mobility disabilities including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBJs) with a goal to help restore the veterans’ physical and emotional independence. Each dog undergoes a year-and-a-half to two years of training and is subjected to a rigorous certification process. Once certified, a dog is ready to be placed with its veteran. All along the dog’s journey he encounters and is supported by caring volunteers, donors, and partners before being gifted to his veteran. After placement, Patriot PAWS spends several days at the owner’s home to ensure a smooth transition.
In 2010, Patriot PAWS became an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International, the world’s only accrediting agency for service dog organizations. Their dogs are trained to meet or exceed certification requirements in performing disability-specific tasks such as getting help in medical emergencies, open and shut doors, pull wheelchairs, assist with chores including laundry, and taking off shoes and socks.
If a dog fails certification it can be retrained to do other tasks. Many of these dogs go on to support law enforcement or detection work. Others become life-long in-home companions for veterans suffering from PTSD or other emotional or psychological condition.
The Power of Compassion
Patriot PAWS is having a huge impact on individuals, communities, and the service dog industry. Their success rate for all placed service dogs is 60% far surpassing the industry standard of 10%. For prison inmates who participate in the Patriot PAWS Prison Program, the recidivism rate has dropped to 2%.
“A young lady once told me that I’m her hero. I was taken aback by her words, and upon reflection, concluded that I’m no hero, that heroes are those who have served our country and sacrificed so much for all of us,” says Stevens. “What I am is a truly blessed person who, with the help of my staff, volunteers, and inmate trainers, is able to give back to these true heroes to make their lives just a little bit better. We owe them far more than we can ever repay, but we’re doing what we can, four paws at a time.”
You can learn more about Patriot PAWS and how you can help at patriotpaws.org.