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NC nonprofit matches veterans with service dogs

By DAN KANE | The News & Observer | Published: May 22, 2016

DURHAM, N.C. (Tribune News Service) -- Not long into Nick Peyton's tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan he began suffering anxiety attacks, particularly when he was among large numbers of people. He used alcohol to combat them until he was discharged in 2014.

Back in his hometown of Wake Forest, and looking to start a new life as a forensic artist, Peyton, 31, found the anxiety attacks continuing even though he was thousands of miles away from war zones. More alcohol wasn't going to solve the problem, but a specially-trained, rescued black lab mix named Murdock is.

Murdock became Peyton's service dog through Vets to Vets United Inc., a small nonprofit in Durham that has matched dogs with 20 veterans since its founding in 2012.

On Saturday, Peyton and Murdock were on hand with other matched vets and pets at the nonprofit's second annual fundraiser at the Emily K Center in Durham.

Peyton takes Murdock to classes at a local art institute. Murdock sits under the desk, ready to put his head in Peyton's lap if he senses Peyton's anxiety returning. It works, and Peyton's expanding his world into other public places.

"For the first time in seven years, I'm planning to go out and see a movie," Peyton said. "It's come a long, long way."

Dr. Terry Morris, a veterinarian and molecular microbiologist, started the charity to help two groups who have long been close to her -- veterans and strays. She grew up in a military family. Her father was an Air Force captain who died when she was young.

His death when she was young brought her to Durham, where her mother had grown up and had family to help raise her three children. Morris got the idea of training rescue dogs for vets after seeing a news report on a similar program in New York.

It's an operation that requires a lot of networking between veterans' assistance programs and animal shelters. Morris has to identify veterans who would be good candidates for help and rescue dogs who have the potential to provide it.

Her success rate so far is high. In four cases, the dog and veteran weren't a good match, but she keeps those dogs in the program with an eye to finding a new owner.

"When you match a veteran with a dog, there's no guarantee it's going to stick," she told the crowd of about 35 people who attended the fundraiser, which included a wheelchair rugby game and a senior ladies' basketball game. "But every dog in our program is never going back behind bars again."

Morris put on an impressive demonstration of what a service dog can do with Brittany, a former stray she found in the woods near her home. The 2 1/2-year-old pit bull mix pushed an emergency call button when Morris pretended to fall, dragged a dropped cane and crutch back to her, and helped her take off her socks, shoes and a hooded sweatshirt. Brittany drew rousing applause from the crowd.

Those are important tasks for vets with physical disabilities, but service dogs can also be trained to help with emotional or mental challenges. The program serves veterans who have family members with disabilities, as Riley, a chow-terrier mix, has been doing for Cindy Woods and her son, Christopher Denton, for the past four months. They live in Durham, where she works as a mental health administrator.

Denton, 24, has autism and epilepsy, and Riley, who's nearly 2, is being trained to lie across him if he starts to experience a seizure or is having an anxiety attack. Riley also gets him out of the house for regular walks, something someone with autism might not normally do.

But Riley has also been a source of support for mom, a retired 20-year veteran.

"She's just super lovable," Woods said. "She just makes me happy."

Vets to Vets United so far has gotten by on a lot of volunteer support and donated services. It has never raised more than $50,000 in any year, which means it only has to file a short report with the IRS.

Several veterinarians have been providing free or reduced-priced care for the dogs, and three organizations have donated space for the training, in which the veterans who receive the dogs are obliged to participate.

Morris has more than 25 veterans on a waiting list for service dogs.

Morris would like the organization to grow to the point that she can start to hire staff, with a preference for veterans, and to have a headquarters in Durham with space to train the dogs. Then she would look to branch out across North Carolina and other states, she said: "Anywhere there are veterans who need help."

(c) 2016 The News & Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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