Florida non-profits turn shelter pets into service dogs for military vets
By SAM HOWARD | The Palm Beach Post | Published: March 21, 2020
JUPITER, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Doug Wonacott took a trip to the Gardens Mall last week.
What may be a quick errand to some is more complicated for the U.S. Army veteran. After 15 deployments during his nearly 21-year career, Wonacott said he has post-traumatic stress disorder and is averse to crowds.
Wonacott figures it's been five years since he last went to a mall. He credits Delta, his new service dog, for making it possible.
"If I didn't have him with me, I wouldn't be doing it. It's almost like, I get back and I'm super exhausted," the 44-year-old said. "But ... I accomplished something. It's like 'Oh wow I can do this.' "
Delta, a year-and-a-half-old lab mix, is among the latest dogs to be paired with a military veteran through the Shelter to Service Dog program, a joint effort by two Jupiter non-profit organizations: the Renewal Coalition and Furry Friends Adoption, Clinic and Ranch.
The program has set up veterans with 22 service dogs since its 2014 launch. Wonacott, of Troy, Tenn., came to Jupiter to pick up Delta last week.
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"For me, it's like the ultimate honor to give one of our service dogs ... to a hero like this," said Pat Deshong, Furry Friends' president.
The non-profits work together to find deserving veterans, train dogs and match them based on a veteran's needs.
And, perhaps most significantly, they foot the bill with help from donors, Deshong said. Training a service dog is a time-intensive process that can last 6-8 months and cost about $15,000, she said.
During that period, the dogs stay at Furry Friends' Martin County ranch and at the Fort Myers home of trainer Summit Earhart.
Midway through training, Earhart said he meets with veterans to pair them up with dogs he thinks will be a good fit. That gives him a few months to train each dog specific to each veteran's needs.
Delta knows to wake Wonacott up from nightmares. Charlie, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois paired with U.S. Marine Corps veteran Antoine Diop, is trained to lean against the retired sergeant so Diop can safely lower himself to the ground if he feels a seizure coming on.
Diop suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2017 from an improvised explosive device blast in Syria. The Atlanta resident picked up Charlie last month.
"He's definitely a game-changer," Diop said. "I can tell you that."
Deshong speaks highly of Earhart's abilities. She hopes to up to program's production to about eight dogs every half-year now that he's recently come on-board.
Summit takes the dogs to crowded and loud public places, like bowling alleys and Disney World, to train them how to act in public.
"They have to be able to work under situations like this," Earhart said, while Delta lounged with a weed whacker whizzing nearby.
The dogs come from a mix of sources. Delta was surrendered at Furry Friends when he was 9 months old because his owner thought he was too energetic, Deshong said. Others have been through more dire circumstances, labeled dangerous at kill shelters, she said.
So Deshong thinks of it as saving two lives: the veteran and the dog.
"The transformations are incredible," Earhart said. "I mean, we take dogs that are battered and broken and beaten and turn them into healing agents for these guys."
Wonacott linked up with the program after going on a marriage retreat hosted by the Renewal Coalition. The non-profit invites service members, veterans and their families to Jupiter for all-expenses-paid retreats and other programs.
"And we stay with them," executive director Mary Hinton said. "Once they go back, they know they can call me at anytime."
Wonacott acknowledges he was skeptical of taking on a service dog, but he credited Hinton and his wife, Elly, with pushing the issue and helping him continue on his path toward recovery.
There have been peaks and valleys by Wonacott's own admission.
His deployments took him to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of his friends were killed in Iraq in 2006 and Wonacott said he nearly tried to kill himself the following year: "My barrel got full. ... I was just done."
At that time, he started seeing a psychologist. Nearly 10 years later, in 2016, Wonacott became the senior medic of his unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
While in charge, he told colleagues about his own challenges with suicide ideation and heard from 60 percent of the 160th's 35-person medical section that they had similar thoughts.
Wonacott went to psychologist appointments with his colleagues. He worked with higher-ups to drastically increase the number of medics in the 160th to reduce stress and burnout.
But he still has lingering anger issues, Wonacott said — set off by things like loud noises and claustrophobia.
After his string of deployments, Wonacott said he transformed from a happy-go-lucky guy to someone who could easily hide all emotions.
"(Delta) reacts to when you get that anger. He's trained to go interact with you, 'Hey pet on me a little bit,'" Wonacott said. "And by the time you're done petting him you've done forgot why you're angry in the first place. To me that is huge."
He rose to the rank of master sergeant before retiring from the military about a month ago.
Wonacott is waiting for his Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to kick in and has a part-time job doing topographical surveys. He says staying busy is the key to a good transition.
Delta will help with that, he said.
"It gives you something else to focus on," Wonacott said. "I've got to take care of him. I've got my family too, but when they're not with me in public or whatever, I've got this dude to just kind of hang out, you know?"