Villagers help pair veterans with dogs

Russ Palecek, of the Village of Sunset Pointe, walks 1-year-old Darcy. As a weekend puppy-raiser through Patriot Service Dogs, Palecek is helping train Darcy to become a service dog for a disabled veteran.

Residents of the Jacaranda Island neighborhood group can’t wait to meet Cutter. The small neighborhood in the Village of Pennecamp is sponsoring the fox red Labrador retriever for Patriot Service Dogs, a nonprofit organization that raises and trains service dogs to be partnered with disabled veterans. Cutter will be a guest at a dinner Feb. 29 at Wildwood Community Center, where the members of the group will get to meet him. “Our neighborhood is very excited to meet Cutter for the very first time and look forward to watching him grow in both size and abilities over the next two years,” said Dave Harrold, of the Village of Pennecamp.

Members of Jacaranda Island are among many local residents who have supported or donated to the service dog organization.

The neighborhood, which gets its nickname from its proximity to the Jacaranda nine at Cane Garden Country Club, is already sponsoring service dogs Jac and Maverick through the organization. The group held a social in November at which members raised more than $12,000 to sponsor two more dogs before Jac and Maverick graduate soon.

“As a neighborhood, we really liked the relationship with that (and thought) let’s do this again,” Harrold said.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Jacaranda Island members heard a breeder in Iowa wanted to donate a service dog to Patriot Service Dogs, and so the neighborhood had its first new trainee. They named it Cutter in honor of its Coast Guard veteran neighbors, with the intent to eventually sponsor dogs to represent each branch of military.

“Cutter is what the Coast Guard calls their boats; they’re all Coast Guard cutters,” Harrold said.

Their involvement was music to CEO and founder Julie Sanderson’s ears, who loves when Villagers get on board with the organization.

“I was surprised, yes,” Sanderson said. “I was thrilled, but this isn’t the first time they’ve helped us … they’ve been great supporters for a while.”

The dogs, primarily golden and Labrador retrievers, are taken at 8 weeks old to Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, where they are trained by female inmates through a good-behavior program called W.O.O.F. The dogs train for about two years, learning basic commands, mobility tools and how to detect symptoms of PTSD.

Of the 19 dogs in training now, eight are being sponsored by Villages groups and many more are making their way in The Villages by weekend puppy-raisers, or volunteers who take the dog outside the prison so they can acclimate to normal life.

“It’s significant,” Sanderson said. “Just dogs alone, I would say (The Villages) sponsors a third or half of our dogs.”

In addition to sponsorship, Jacaranda Island members began weekend collections of dog food and other items the dogs in training would need. Those items are on an Amazon wishlist, which Harrold invites anyone to make a purchase from as it contains the exact needs Patriot Service Dogs has. And for every purchase made on the wishlist, Amazon will donate 1% to the nonprofit, Harrold said.

“They’re really good at seeing specific needs and jumping in and saying, ‘This is something we can do,’” Sanderson said. “And not only did they buy them, they had it shipped to us so we could take it to the prison.”

Although hard to track specific donations in dollars, The Villages has been a significant backer, Sanderson said.

“Usually their donations come in the form of (dog) sponsorships. Each sponsorship is $5,000, so you can multiply out each of those dogs by $5,000,” Sanderson said.

And volunteer efforts include helping with awareness events and being a weekend puppy-raiser. Sanderson estimates The Villages has about sixty volunteers in The Villages alone.

Of all the local communities that have embraced organization, The Villages has been one of the biggest helps, Sanderson said.

“They have been, by far, the largest group to step up and embrace the cause,” Sanderson said. “Overall, our group changed in dynamics with Villagers. It gave us not only financial backing, but support.”

Villagers for Veterans, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping veterans, got involved with the organization four years ago through donations and sponsorship of dogs. The group’s first dog Sarge, a golden retriever, graduated two years ago and was placed with a veteran in Weirsdale. Bradley, a golden labrador, graduated last year.

The Villages group has five dogs in training now, three of which are in partnership with other Villages groups. Golden retriever lab mix Molly and Bernese mountain dog Tank are through the group. Mixed breed Maverick and golden retriever lab mix Jac are in partnership with Jacaranda Island neighborhood and goldendoodle Major is in partnership with Hometown Twirlers.

In addition to dog sponsorship, the past two years Villagers for Veterans has paid for travel and hotel expenses for veterans the week they train with their service dog before graduation. If graduation takes place in The Villages this year, the group is happy to pay again.

“We just have a nice partnership with them,” president Maria Bogdonoff said. “We both want quality service dogs to be given to our veterans, so it’s a good cause for us to be involved in.”

Daughters of the American Revolution John Bartram Chapter decided to get on board as a part of its veterans committee and sponsor Darcy, a yellow lab.

“The most exciting part for me is seeing the change that takes place in the prisoner, the permanent changes in their lives,” said chapter regent Sandy Lainy. “The veteran gets a service dog, the dog gets a home...I just think it’s a wonderful program.”

The group gets to see Darcy once in a while, as she is currently with Russ Palecek, a puppy-raiser in The Villages, for an extended term.

“It’s giving back,” Palecek said. “I’m a veteran, but I hadn’t seen combat, so this is my way of giving back. I was in the Army in the ‘70s.”

Like other dogs taken by volunteers on the weekends, Darcy goes wherever Palecek goes as a way to get her acclimated to normal life.

“If I go to the movies she goes to the movies.  If I go to the bowling alley, she goes to the bowling alley. If I got to the square, she goes,” Palecek, of the Village of Sunset Pointe, said.

The Dynamic Dog Club’s first service dog Radar, a golden retriever, graduated last year. The club raises funds through its traveling doggie circuses and drill-performance team events. It’s current service dog, Tucker, a lab, has about another year of training to go.

Having nonprofit organizations along with community support is substantial way to reduce costs for people who would otherwise have to pay thousands out of pocket, said Rebecca Williams, lead information specialist for the Southeast ADA Center.

“I’ve seen anywhere from $7,000 to $25,000 (for a service dog),” Williams said. “The purchase of the dog from the breeder, its food, its veterinary bills, paying for the trainer, paying for any equipment they use in the process of training the dog.”

Williams has found it’s common for communities, organizations and businesses to pour into service dog organizations to offset costs to those who need them. And that’s important for the value those dogs bring, she said.

“The service dog is there to do tasks that the person with the disability cannot do for themselves, such as opening doors, turning on lights, picking up dropped items, getting medication, allowing a person to lean on them if they are weak or push them up into a seating position,” Williams said. “The most important thing is it does in increase a person’s independence so they could perhaps go to work, participate in community and civic life.”

About 18 to 19 dogs are trained at Lowell at a time, not including those out being trained with puppy-raisers and past inmates.

“Unfortunately, they’re limited because there can only be about 18 dogs in the prison at one time,” Bogdonoff said. “We could probably sponsor more dogs if there would be the facilities to train.”

Fortunately, that won’t be the case for too long. Patriot Service Dogs is currently fundraising to design and build Patriots Landing, a building to not only house older dogs in the system so younger dogs can be trained, but to expose the dogs to an actual home environment. The building will have functions and furniture found in a home and should house about five dogs at a time.

“The prison is an unrealistic environment,” Sanderson said. “There are no doors in prison and no washing machines. There’s none of the things you’ll be introduced to in a house, so it’ll be a great way to show those dogs those things before they’re placed with a veteran in a longterm basis.”

The fundraiser kicked off Nov. 19. So far it has raised $90,000 of the estimated $125,000 needed, Sanderson said.

“Teaming up with The Villages and Villages groups has allowed us to move forward and to think of doing something like Patriots Landing,” Sanderson said. “It feels like The Villages is behind us and supporting us, and it allows us to take steps forward that I don’t know we would have if we didn’t have the support of The Villages.”

To donate the fundraiser, visit patriotservicedogs.org. Checks made out to Patriot Service Dogs also are accepted and can be mailed to 10545 SE 42nd Court, Belleview, FL, 34420. Funds can be earmarked for the facility project.

Patriot Service Dogs is also having a meet the trainers dinner 6 p.m. Feb. 29 at Wildwood Community Center at which Cutter will be present. Former inmates will be demonstrating how dogs are trained. The event is open to the public and is a great opportunity for Villages groups sponsoring dogs to see their dogs.

Tickets for the event can be purchased at facebook.com/PatriotServiceDogs.

For more information, call 352-514-9903 or email info@patriotservicedogs.org.

Staff writer Kristi Schweitzer can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5225, or kristi.schweitzer@thevillagesmedia.com.