Group lets injured troops train own canines as service dogs
The Sedalia (Mo.) Democrat/MCT
WARSAW — In a hotel room in Colorado, Chuck and Kate Daffron made a decision to change the lives of disabled veterans.
Out of that conversation, the Edwards couple decided to launch their non-profit organization Daffron Doghouse to help veterans train their own service dogs.
Chuck trained his own dog, Zeus, to help him with severe anxiety and to alert him when seizures or blackouts are about to occur.
While on a trip to Florida, Kate was watching Zeus when a homeless Vietnam veteran approached her. He commented on how beautiful he was and said, “These dogs know what we’ve gone through because these were the ones that were over there with us.”
She watched the man tear up before he walked away. This was the moment she realized: “We’ve done it for ourselves; we could help other people and we could train for other people.”
Chuck looks like a normal man on the outside, but on the inside it’s a different story. He joined the Army in 1990 and served in Desert Storm and in Somalia in 1993.
He transferred into the National Guard in 1994 and served as a military policeman until a shunt was placed in his brain to drain a cyst which prevented him from wearing his Kevlar protective headgear. He was medically discharged from the guard. The shunt was later removed and he resumed his guard duties. In 2006, he was allowed to re-enlist in the Army, where he served until April 2012.
He suffered multiple injuries that led to surgeries on his knees, brain, hands and elbow. He has nerve damage in his back and neck, memory loss, blackouts and seizures. At 41 years old, on bad days he can’t walk halfway across a parking lot without having to stop.
His post traumatic stress was triggered in a major way in April 2010, when he went to Fort Polk, La., to train some troops who were getting ready to deploy. He was supposed to be an evaluator. He was uncomfortable because they used live amputees on the field to simulate the realism of war.
“When the big guns and the explosions started, he snapped. That’s the first time he had a wide awake flashback,” said wife Kate. “He’s had nightmares for years. He said this was different. He jumped in with the team and started shouting orders. He thought he was back in Mogadishu and needed to get his men out of there.”
Following this experience, he started having full-blown anxiety attacks when he was in public. Though he had processed the sights, the blood and the smells of battle, he never processed the sounds.
“I have total respect for these older veterans who dealt with a lot of this all their lives and never had any help. Even in Desert Storm, you didn’t talk about it,” said Kate.
Finding the answers with Zeus
The Daffrons found a way to assist Chuck with his PTSD and extreme anxiety through unconventional means.
“Back in 2009, we got Zeus as a 3-month old puppy with the intentions of trying to train him as a service dog for our now 15-year old daughter. She’s anaphylactic in about 10 different things,” Kate said.
His second job was going to be working with her special needs day care children. Chuck was Zeus’s primary trainer at the time. When he was about a year old, they decided to take a vacation to Florida. One day Chuck wasn’t feeling well and sat down on a park bench. He started leaning forward with his head in his hands. Zeus came up underneath him, pushed him back, put his paws on his lap and leaned up against him. He refused to let Chuck lean forward. The Daffrons wondered what was wrong with him and why he was acting this way.
Two days later they were at Epcot Center and Chuck rode some rides with his children. When he returned, Zeus jumped on his shoulders, forcing him to sit down.
“That was our first indication that Zeus was alerting to and detecting Chuck’s blackouts and seizures,” said Kate. “That’s when we really knew he was very gifted and that he was not going to be our daughter’s dog anymore.”
Cries for help
Servicemen take note of Chuck and Zeus whenever they walk into a room. While the Daffrons were stationed in Colorado, they were approached by numerous soldiers who were interested in service dogs. They shared their frustrations on how they couldn’t afford a dog and how the waiting list to receive one was two to three years. They asked, “Why can’t I work with my dog that I already have? Can you help us?”
The Daffrons thought about this and figured if they could train Zeus by themselves, why couldn’t other soldiers do the same thing? In July 2011, while in transition during Chuck’s medical board process, they started putting the program together in a hotel room in Colorado.
The premise is to have the veteran train their own dog instead of hiring a company to do the work. The entire program is Internet-based so soldiers and disabled veterans can participate anywhere in the United States. They can use the program in coordination with a local trainer.
They also help train dogs for people who aren’t physically able because of mobility issues. They don’t take on too many of these cases because they can help more veterans through the owner training program. Their physical kennel and training space in Missouri is limited.
“Most of the guys that are coming back from the theater right now have PTSD and I can guarantee it affects us, our immediate families and everybody we come in contact with. Don’t think it does? Let one of us get into a crowded room — we can’t deal with it, we can’t handle it,” Chuck said.
“That seriously impacts my life. Without Zeus I don’t go in crowds, I don’t go to Walmart, I don’t do anything where there’s going to be a bunch of people. With him, it kind of soothes me a little bit, but I know that when he’s there, people are not going to come up and just be right up on top of me.”
Zeus had been trained for seizure alert and response and mobility work up until this point.“After working with the other soldiers, we realized that regardless of their physical injuries, the PTSD was a universal but unseen disability, often the most debilitating,” Chuck said.
The Daffrons began researching and working with other service dog trainers to also qualify the dogs for PTSD work as psychiatric service dogs.
“We now train all of the dogs for the PTSD work, along with the specific service tasks for their handlers’ other injuries,” Chuck said.
One of the commands a dog learns in training is how to non-aggressively guard their handler. When the command “watch my back” is given, the dog turns his back to the handler and stares down the people behind him. This allows the veteran to pay his bill in a grocery store or get money out of an ATM without being taken by surprise.
“For these guys that have extreme anxiety in that line ... they feel trapped. To them it’s like being in that convoy — what’s going to blow up around me and how am I going to get out? The dog clears a little bit of safe space,” Kate said.
Servicemembers who qualify
To qualify for this program, service dog handlers must be a wounded warrior or a disabled veteran of any era. They must have documentation of their disability stating how it seriously impacts their life and a military connection. Active duty soldiers must have a letter of support from their chain of command. All of the training models are designed for brain-injured soldiers.
By law, the dogs must perform at least three service tasks for the handler. On average, Daffron Doghouse service dogs learn well over 30 service task commands. The program meets or exceeds all of the accepted standards in the service dog industry such as Assistance Dogs International, International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, Psychiatric Service Dog Society and Delta Society.
There is never any charge to the veteran for the Daffron Doghouse training program.
“These men and women have already paid a high enough price and this is the least we can do to help them live a more fulfilling life and access their communities,” said Kate.
Veterans do pay for their own equipment and veterinary expenses. In the future, Daffron Doghouse hopes to provide a team sponsorship program to assist with a portion of these expenses.
Results so far
Currently there are 37 teams in the program. Twenty-four of them are working with their dogs on some level. Fifteen of those dogs have passed their canine good citizen test, which means they are allowed to work in public places that are not pet friendly. Seven have passed their public access test.
They have seen positive results over the past year and a half. A soldier who has trouble with anxiety, traumatic brain injury, severe PTSD and memory loss contacted the Daffrons in January. Soon after he started the program, his wife contacted them. She told him had hadn’t left the house in three years other than going to the doctor’s office.
Now he is going to the store and taking his children to fast food restaurants, and he is apprenticing with a Daffron Doghouse dog trainer in Colorado, Hugh McDonald, so he can help other veterans.
“This is why we are unique. We focus on the service dog but we build a team of support with all of the handlers and trainers. Very few of the other organizations have monthly follow-up forever. They’ll follow up for six months, some of them for a year,” Kate said.
Among their goals are to branch out and provide therapy dogs to chaplains and to VA facilities.
Support is key
The Daffrons are working on building an addition at their home that will include a training room, grooming and kennel area and bedroom for veterans to stay in while they are working with their dog. They would also like to expand outdoors.
“Our outdoor kennel space is really rough and redneck right now. It was made with used materials. We have three outdoor kennels and a big play yard. I would eventually like to get some indoor/outdoor kennel spaces and have an enclosed agility and training area,” Kate said.
Items they could use are used fencing, especially commercial or privacy fencing, and used building materials. They are even making some of the agility equipment out of used pallets.
“We are supporting this organization almost completely out of our own pockets, along with a few donations that we have gotten recently,” Kate said.
The program relies on private donations and volunteers, and individuals or businesses can sponsor a specific service dog team. Daffron Doghouse has Missouri non-profit status and is working on getting their 501(c)3 as soon as possible.
For more information, visit daffrondoghouse.org.
Distributed by MCT Information Services