Back in 2005, Lori Stevens was experiencing a time of transition. She’d just watched her son leave the country to embark on his first deployment overseas. Then a phone call changed everything. A veteran at the Dallas VA contacted Stevens requesting some insights. It turns out the veteran had heard about her specialized training expertise — Stevens is a professional service-dog trainer — and hoped she might be able to assist as he struggled to socialize and train his own service dog.
Looking back, Stevens now realizes that this encounter planted the seed for what would eventually become Patriot PAWS.
“Both my father and son have served in the military. I’ve seen firsthand how our American veterans put everything on the line to serve our country,” she says. “Often, that dedication costs them something crucial — many have lost limbs, vision, hearing. Some struggle with traumatic brain injury. Others return to civilian life depressed, grieving, suffering from debilitating nightmares, even contemplating suicide.”
Stevens recognized that, just like anyone, these veterans want to preserve their independence — and they’re often reluctant to ask for help because it tends to draw unwanted attention.
“For these men and women,” explains Stevens, “a well-trained service dog can make a life-changing difference.”
Following that early meeting, she began taking action. Today, Stevens serves as founder and executive director of a Dallas-based, 501(c)(3) organization that provides trained, high-quality, no-cost service dogs to disabled American veterans and others with mobility limitations. Patriot PAWS’ primary goal is to help these individuals maintain their dignity while restoring physical and/or emotional independence. Once an individual takes ownership of a Patriot PAWS service dog, says Stevens, “They become part of our family for life.”
Since its inception, Patriot PAWS has forged partnerships with organizations that help support its core objectives. Most of its service dogs are initially selected from local animal shelters, rescue groups, and reputable breeders. These pups are carefully evaluated to determine whether they have the proper temperament to become trained service dogs with Patriot PAWS, which is fully accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI).
“We initially temperament-test each dog for 30 days,” explains Stevens, “and then continue to monitor closely for several months.” In some cases, says Stevens, training can reshape and/or eliminate certain behaviors. “But even when a dog isn’t 100 percent right for our program, we still try to find that dog a purpose.”
Thanks to Patriot PAWS’ outplacement efforts, many of these career-change canines go on to perform meaningful work with disadvantaged youth or community programs.
Stevens mentions that roughly 80 percent of her service dogs are retrievers. “They tend to be very even-tempered,” she notes, adding that retrieving also represents a big part of the duties these dogs will be expected to perform for veterans with mobility limitations. “But we also work with a good percentage of mixed breeds. Our selection process is exacting because dependability is crucial.”
In 2008, Patriot PAWS expanded its training program to include a partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). “This partnership helps us support disabled veterans with well-trained dogs while simultaneously giving inmates an opportunity to form meaningful canine bonds, give back to the community, and learn new career skills that can help them secure responsible employment upon release,” explains Stevens.
The program essentially trains prison inmates to train the service dogs. Certified Patriot PAWS service dog trainers work directly with the inmates and their assigned dogs at the correctional facilities on a weekly basis. The inmates live with these dogs in a dormitory-style space within each unit. According to Stevens, handlers are typically switched every six to eight weeks to help socialize each dog during the training process.
“Working with the dogs helps gives these inmates a critical sense of purpose,” she says. “The dogs, in turn, develop vital socialization skills that enhance their training.”
Inmates learn how to teach all 55 required basic service dog behaviors, and they’re given comprehensive tests quarterly. Those who become more advanced in their training serve as mentors for new inmates entering the program.
Upon leaving this stage of training, dogs then go to one of Patriot PAWS’ volunteer puppy raisers to strengthen all-important socialization skills in an actual home environment. The organization’s staff trainers work closely with the puppy raisers, addressing potential behavior issues while reinforcing commands.
Once a dog is placed with a new owner, a Patriot PAWS trainer always travels to spend one-on-one time in the home. “Our trainers spend several days helping to familiarize each dog with the new environment,” explains Stevens. “We also fine-tune that canine’s skills to the owner’s specific needs.”
It currently takes roughly 18 months to two years to train a single service dog, at a cost of roughly $33,000 per canine. One hundred percent of the money needed to care for service dogs in training is donated by private individuals and corporations. According to Stevens, Patriot PAWS is currently in the midst of its first-ever capital campaign. This will allow it to expand the number of on-site trainers and kennels at the headquarters location.
Any American veteran with a service-connected disability can apply for a Patriot PAWS service dog; the service is also available to other Americans with mobile disabilities. To learn more, donate, or submit an initial application, visit the Patriot PAWS website.