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Puppy raising program aims to improve service dog wait times for veterans

anchor with fam.jpg
Posted at 1:54 PM, Jan 04, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-05 16:16:34-05

What if "bring your dog to work day" was an everyday thing? We're talking puppies riding the elevator and going up and down your office halls.

PenFed Foundation, a nonprofit organization, wants to see this happen. The reason is to get more people to raise puppies which can then be sent off for specialized training to become service dogs for veterans.

"The PenFed Foundation has partnered with Canine Companions because the demand for service dogs has never been greater. And unfortunately, the wait list for a service dog for veterans and others is up to two years. And we just think that's unacceptable for someone who's given so much and served our country," said Andrea McCarren, President of the PenFed Foundation and puppy raiser herself.

"The PenFed Foundation raises money and we use that money to partner with Canine Companions to fund these dogs."

McCarren explained the dogs go to the servicemembers for free.

Navy veteran Jeffrey Klimczak is grateful for the program. He welcomed a retriever (half Labrador half Golden Retriever) into his family about eight months ago.

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Anchor is now 2.5 years old and true to his namesake, has been a solid source of comfort and healing.

He's been trained to identify signs of anxiety like foot tapping. He nudges Klimczak with his nose to break him out of that feeling.

"Or one of the things that we worked on with him was when I start like playing unconsciously with a pen or just my fingers are moving, my hands are moving. He notices that and he'll come and interrupt me. And he'll just nudge me with his nose."

And he's right by Klimczak's side if he has nightmares or when he goes out in public. That includes a recent family trip to Disney where big crowds were the norm.

"I did amazing with him there and he did amazing there."

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"When we're out and about when the anxiety is high, he's right next to me. He just, it's, it's hard to explain, but, he's there. So, it like makes me focus on him instead of my surroundings. So, it makes it a lot easier to, um, just cope with everything going on."

Then there was the time when Klimczak got to throw out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game. Klimczak found out an hour before taking the mound and Anchor sensed his nervousness.

"His eyes were always on me the entire time that we were out in the field."

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After puppy raisers do their part, dogs like Anchor can be trained to do everything from closing doors to picking up keys or cell phones off the ground, turning on light switches and even helping a person pay at a register in a store.

"People may be surprised to learn that every service dog takes about $50,000 to raise, train, veterinary bills. So it's a lot, but it is so completely life-changing and very often life-saving," said McCarren.

"What really facilitates the process is more CEOs and more corporations, whether it's a small business, medium-sized or a large business, would allow their employees to bring these service dogs and training to the office. It's amazing for morale and it's a great team-building experience during those 18 months, whether it's a staff meeting to a board meeting, these service dogs truly boost morale and make it a great place to work in providing service to others," said PenFed Foundation CEO James Schenck.

Not everyone may welcome animals in a workplace. Employees may be allergic or have a fear of dogs.

"An employee can change floors if the employer would be accommodating to put the dog on a different floor if an employee next to that office was allergic. But very fortunate, most folks aren't, but I think most employers would make appropriate accommodations as necessary," said McCarren.

Klimczak says he keeps in touch with the people who raised Anchor. They sent Anchor a Christmas gift and both families exchanged Christmas cards. Eighteen months is a long time to raise a puppy and then say goodbye, but when it's for the greater good like helping a veteran, it's worth it.

"Everybody deserves that opportunity to have their normal life now," Klimczak said.

"Anyone in the country that has a willingness, a desire to serve can raise a service dog. They really don't need any dog training experience, just a willingness to open up their heart and their home and ideally their workplace" said McCarren.

To learn more about the puppy-raising program, you can visit penfedfoundation.org.