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North Hills Monthly

Service Dogs Provide Healing, Support to Children and Vets

Nov 29, 2019 11:39AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

The best medicine that Dustin Schneider was ever prescribed did not come in the form of a pill. Rather, it is his service dog, a German Shepherd named Spangle, that has been his lifeline.

Schneider has been deployed twice to Afghanistan and three times to Iraq, and he suffered multiple disabling concussions during his last deployment. Although diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, PTSD and depression, Schneider was able to stop taking 97 percent of his medications soon after he was paired with Spangle.

“My first night having Spangle, I was finally able to get a full night’s sleep—from that first night all the way through to today,” said Schneider, who lives in Mt. Washington. “Now I’m able to have a productive day. I don’t feel like a zombie. Spangle does her job throughout the day: shielding me, making sure people don’t get too close. She’s really good at making sure I’m calm.”

Spangle is one of more than 330 dogs across 24 states that has been trained by Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, a nonprofit that matches disabled veterans with canine service animals. Besides veterans, other recipients of dogs have included first responders and civilians.

CEO Carol Borden said that the nationally recognized organization has won many awards, including for the work they do with veterans in the mental health field and for creating career paths. Just recently, Alice, a dog trained by Guardian Angels, won the 2019 American-Humane Hero Dog Award, the highest honor a dog can receive in the United States.

Based in Florida, the organization intends to bring its college-accredited apprenticeship training program to Pittsburgh. “We purchased 102 acres that run alongside Montour Trail and plan to build a state-of-the art facility, the first of its kind in the U.S.,” said Borden.

Not only will dogs be trained at the facility, but their recipients will be able to stay on the property when they arrive to be paired with their animals. “All dogs are custom-trained to meet the needs of individuals. Participants will stay with us for two weeks while they’re learning what their dog already knows,” said Borden.

“We work with these individuals to integrate them back into the public; many of these people have been isolated for a very long time,” she added. “Then they can become productive citizens again by going back to college or finding gainful employment.”  

Depending on what the recipient’s needs are, the dogs can be trained to be alert for seizures, diabetic changes, or to serve those with mobility issues. Borden said that the dogs, which are predominantly German Shepherds that the organization breeds, can be trained to bring food and water from a refrigerator, pick up dropped items, and even hit a 911 button. On average, training lasts 15 months to two years, and dogs have an 8- to 10-year working life. 

Though suicide and divorce rates are fairly high among the veteran population, in the 10 years since the organization’s inception, there have been no suicides by veterans paired with their dogs, and the divorce rate has been less than one percent.

Borden said that she is looking forward to bringing Guardian Angels to Pittsburgh. 

“Pittsburgh has totally embraced us; it has been wonderful,” she said. “I travel all over the country all the time, and I have never met a sour person in Pittsburgh. Everybody is always wonderful, loving, outgoing, sweet and helpful; I can’t say enough kind things about the people here.” 

Many local corporate sponsors, such as PNC, Eat‘n Park, and all three professional sports teams have stepped up to help by sponsoring dogs or holding fundraisers.

Children can also benefit from service dogs, which is the focus of Canine Service Pals based in Moon, PA.

About six years ago, Ivy Fodor, owner of the Parkway Pet Lodge, was inspired to build a facility to train rescue dogs to become service animals. Fodor works predominantly with Beaver County Humane Society to adopt young shelter dogs that she hopes will be good candidates for training. She tries to find dogs that are intelligent, trainable and have a good temperament, and the majority of her trainees tend to be mixed breeds.

The dogs are trained at the Moon Township facility and live with volunteer ‘puppy raisers’ for about a two-year period before they are delivered to their recipients. The puppy raisers, who train and socialize the dogs, are also responsible for the animals financially up until this time.

Because funding is always an issue, Fodor said that she asks families who have received dogs to pay it forward by holding a fundraiser with a goal of raising $5,000 to donate to the cost of raising and training the next dog. She calculated that each dog costs about $20,000.

To date, the organization has placed seven dogs with children living with a variety of conditions, such as cerebral palsy, and children who have sustained disabilities from accidents. Fodor said that the feedback she has received has all been positive, and the children who have received dogs from Canine Service Pals have formed a little community.

“This program is so needed,” said Fodor. “There are so many shelter dogs, and there are so many people that a dog can help. 

“It’s just a matter of getting the info out there and getting more funding,” she added. “Our dream is to take this nationally.” 

For more information visit www.medicalservicedogs.org or www.canineservicepals.org.