A Real Win-Win: Saving Dogs and Saving Veterans: An Interview with Susan Hinkle
“I find it fascinating how a dog can change a person’s life,” said Susan Hinkle, Founder and Program Director of Missouri Patriot Paws.
Before starting Missouri Patriot Paws, an organization that provides the training and matching of service dogs for veterans across the state of Missouri, Hinkle spent 16 years as a Tester/Observer for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. She has always had a passion for working with both animals and people in need, completing therapy visits to schools, universities, nursing homes, medical facilities and military bases with her own Golden Retrievers. Hinkle spent many years running a service dog program and even worked with a service animal organization in San Antonio, Texas. However, about three years ago, she decided that she wanted to start her own service animal organization that directly benefitted the veterans who retire in Missouri.
In January 2013, Missouri Patriot Paws officially began working to provide veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) with the service dogs they need in order to heal emotionally, mentally, and physically. At first, the organization was fairly small, but it quickly grew in both popularity and size. Today, Missouri Patriot Paws attracts people from across the state and has trainers who work with veterans and service dogs in almost every corner of Missouri.
“I wasn’t expecting the explosion and how fast [Missouri Patriot Paws] grew,” said Hinkle.
Finding a New Best Friend
In order to work with Missouri Patriot Paws and receive a service dog that is trained under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a veteran must first receive a prescription for a service dog from a doctor. Once they have a prescription, the veteran usually hears about Missouri Patriot Paws through their VA doctor, VA representatives, Facebook, the organization’s website, or other veterans. The veteran is then in contact with Hinkle who works with the individual on the application process and matches them up with a dog and trainer if they qualify.
Hinkle works closely with the Puppies for Parole program through the Missouri Department of Corrections in order to obtain many of the dogs for Missouri Patriot Paws. Because every prison in Missouri has dogs working with its inmates, it is easy for Hinkle to find trained dogs from Puppies for Parole who are suitable for veterans. Many of these dogs receive over 150 hours of training from inmates and are passed as Canine Good Citizens through the American Kennel Club (AKC). This foundational training enables Hinkle and her team to spend less time and resources working with a veteran to train his or her service dog.
The training process that the dogs must undergo before being certified as a service dog is rather extensive. The dog must pass a basic obedience test, become certified as an AKC Canine Good Citizen, and complete a public access test. Additionally, it must be trained to the standards of Assistance Dogs International and be trained to help with a disability by performing at least three tasks under ADA. All in all, the dog must receive at least 120 hours of training.
To work with the veterans and dogs through the training process, Missouri Patriot Paws partners with four dog trainers from around the state. The current trainers are Jessi Queen of Canine Connections Dog Training in Rolla, MO, John Lopez of Standing OBEYtion Dog Training in Rogersville, MO, Emily Hershey of Alastair Canine Services LLC in Granby, MO, and Catherine Schiltz of K-9 Boundaries LLC in Columbia, MO. Each trainer runs their training program slightly different. Some of them have the veteran and the dog attend obedience classes together and others take the dog for a period of time and finish its training and then bring the veteran in to fine tune the dog at the end. While each trainer’s methods are unique, they all share a passion for working with dogs and people and giving back to veterans.
A High Level of Success
Missouri Patriot Paws has had a very high success rate with only two dogs not making it through the program. Hinkle attributes the success to the interview process that each veteran must go through before being matched up with a dog. By asking questions about the veteran’s lifestyle, level of activity, family members, and pets, she is able to ensure that the veteran and dog are a close match. Over the past two years, Missouri Patriot Paws has certified 19 service dogs and currently has nine more in training.
The veterans who work with Missouri Patriot Paws vary greatly in age, background, and levels of PTSD, TBI, or other disabilities. In order to be eligible for the program, a veteran must have at least a 45 percent rating for PTSD. These individuals tend to experience a lot of depression, anxiety when in public settings, and even suicidal thoughts.
“One reason I started Missouri Patriot Paws is because 22 veterans commit suicide every day,” said Hinkle.
When a veteran has a dog to take care of, he or she cannot just sit inside all day and remain sedentary. They must go out and go for a walk and become part of society again. The veterans tend to view their dogs as a family member and friend and truly develop an unbreakable bond with them.
“I needed a friend to help me through life,” said Abraham Clark, a Vietnam veteran.
Hinkle has seen close bonds develop between a person and a dog within just a few days. Because of their loving and caring nature, dogs often move into their role of taking care of the veterans very quickly. This close connection gives both the dog and veteran a purpose and is often life-saving.
“It’s life-changing for almost all of them,” said Hinkle. “It’s a win-win because we are saving veterans and saving dogs.”
In addition to providing friendship to the veterans, the dogs also help prevent or ease PTSD attacks. The dogs often lick, nudge, or jump on the veteran when he or she begins to have an attack, helping the veteran refocus his or her attention and calm down. The dogs can also be trained to position themselves either in front of or behind the veterans in order to block and cover them for an added sense of protection. By having a dog walk next to them, veterans are able to begin living their lives again and move forward confidently.
“I don’t know where my son would be without that dog,” said one Missouri Patriot Paws veteran’s mother.
The Passion Continues to Grow
Missouri Patriot Paws will be expanding into the Columbia, Missouri area in 2016 in order to serve a greater number of people in need. Hinkle also hopes to split up the fundraising efforts by region so that she is not overbooked with fundraising and writing grants for the entire state.
Even though Hinkle has a full-time job and her own family, Missouri Patriot Paws will always be a passion of hers.
“I love being in the veterans’ lives and being with the dogs,” said Hinkle.
To learn more about Missouri Patriot Paws and Susan Hinkle, visit their website.