Editor’s note: The Log Cabin Democrat is looking into the use of service and support animals, the laws around them, rights of owners and the public and more about the topic overall. This is the second story in the series.
For more than 30 years, Faulkner County resident Don Gardner has trained dogs but only in the past couple of years has he used that “God-given” gift to help veterans.
Gardner grew up around military personnel. His dad, stepdad, uncle, cousin and other family members served — something he said he never wanted to do.
He said he grew up in the Vietnam War era, and from what he witnessed on the news and in ones around him, those who served came back unwelcomed, disrespected, not getting the reception they reserved.
In addition, Gardner saw firsthand what war did to its people and the lasting impacts it brought.
“I was never really aware of the numbers and that there were not programs [for veterans] out there,” he said.
Gardner spent a good amount of his life raising and showing dogs, seeing success from that, until he started the Federal Canine Security Agency in 2003 with a friend; in 2002 he traveled to England and trained with British military for that.
For years he was at the agency, working with explosive detection dogs at the airport in Little Rock and even traveled out of state to Texas to assist NASA during the Space Shuttle Columbia incident — it broke apart upon entry killing its seven-member crew.
After he left, he continued searches at various courthouses, Verizon Arena, War Memorial Stadium and more until he joined a relatively new dog training company in Northwest Arkansas as its director, which didn’t turn out how he expected; he was let go after eight months from a place that had turned more toward taking advantage of veteran’s “sob stories,” than helping them.
When he was asked to leave, board members, trainers, veterans and others quit too. He said he learned a lot from that experience and ultimately, decided to start his own nonprofit business — co-founder Marsha Wyatt included — Service Dogs of Distinction, which several from the previous job joined him in.
“That [experience] really opened my eyes to see what the need was out there,” Gardner said. “[Gardner and the other trainers] decided we can’t let these veterans just fall away. I decided that I was going to take the initiative and start our own service dog organization, specifically, for the veterans, that being our main priority.”
He said the business just celebrated its third birthday since starting in January 2016; they train in both Rose Bud and Fayetteville, free of charge for veterans.
In that time, the organization has graduated 13 dogs and their veterans and seen around six civilian graduates as well, with the number still growing; they have around several going through the program now.
Service Dogs of Distinction uses the Assistance Dogs International training program and requires that a dog be at least 2-years-old — good age for proper maturity needed for the job — before it can be certified.
As for the dogs themselves, Gardner said they get most from people rehoming or the animal shelters and rescues and aren’t “bred specific.”
“We like to say it’s not the outside [that matters] it’s the inside,” he said.
More importantly than how a dog looks or its size, Gardner said they are looking for dogs that have a calm nature, one that can stay connected to their humans and have better eye contact.
The trainers bring the dogs into their home and start what they refer to as “foundational skills,” before they are paired with a veteran.
“The dog has all the basic obedience and altogether have at least 11 foundational skill requirements they have to meet before we will pair them,” Gardner said.
The part on the veteran is a bit different.
Gardner said by the time they get someone calling them, they’re usually at the end of their rope.
He said he recalled a moment with his step dad years ago. Whenever Gardner would complain about something or whine, his step dad would remind him, “son, it’s mind over matter … if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
Gardner said he finally asked him what that meant. His step-dad recalled a story from being in the war, a time as a U.S. Marine where he was ear deep in some river, still for three to four days surrounded by who knows what.
He reiterated the same phrase to Gardner, “if you don’t mind, it don’t matter,” which hit him hard.
“The mentality of the military is to get the job done, the mentality of the veteran administration is, ‘if we admit we broke it, we have to be responsible for fixing it,’” he said.
These servicemen and women, Gardner said, have been conditioned to keep going despite what their body is telling them, no self-care, no therapy, no asking for help, which is often viewed as a sign of weakness.
“They are still regularly drawn back into that very structured, follow orders, kind of operation,” he said. “Their whole lives and brains become that.”
Gardner said the one solution that is offered is medication, a drastic contrast from the positive therapy he offers through service dogs.
The overall mentality around post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other physical and mental disorders and the military training they receive, forces a veteran to be less likely to ask for help from them but will turn to self-medication, alcohol, and other numbing fixes which are compounded by civilian life the experience when they leave.
Gardner said he knows this because that’s what one of his trainees told him.
This particular veteran’s sons were in sports. He had never been to any of their games. When oversees serving, he’d take some pills, drink away his issues and compartmentalize the problems, a coping technique many in the service lean on but, when they come home, not as accessible.
He said the veteran told him his wife and boys would go out to eat, he’d say he had a headache to stay home, hiding what was going on from his family.
“We may be the one last thing they approach so we want that to be very beneficial from the get-go,” Gardner said.
They fill out an application requesting very little information and then meet for a one-on-one interview and talk about the 10-15 or so month commitment the training requires, the veteran’s family’s commitment needed and more.
“Probably the first thing we try to address without directly addressing it is knowing there’s probably going to be a trust issue,” Gardner said. “They’re not going to trust anybody really other than maybe close family but that could be close family that’s already given them a hard time because they won’t go get help. A lot of that trust issue is one of the first things we address by trying to ensure that they feel like we have their best interest at heart.”
He said every veteran that comes in goes through being nervous, scared, distrusting, disheartened maybe depressed and suicidal.
“His success story went from being so nervous at the interview — I would not have been surprised if he had took off running out the door at any time — to being able to go to football games and practices with his boys, the dog right there with him.”
Gardner described one picture that veteran’s wife sent him that sums up what they view as success
He said in the photo, the veteran is posing with his service dog and his son, still in full uniform, after one of his football games.
“That was the first time he had ever seen his boy play,” Gardner said, smiling.
Once a dog has been trained in its fundamental skills and a veteran has gone through their 30-day or so preparing training, Gardner said the human begins interacting with several dogs.
“While they are doing that they work with the various dogs we have that are in the program at various different levels of training and those dogs, always let us know when their person comes around,” he said. “We like to say we let the dog do the picking, so, a veteran may work with 2-3 dogs but one of those dogs is going to work better and work more for him, we will notice the connection is better. We will notice that it clicks.”
Gardner said they can train a lot of dogs to do a lot of tasks, but if there’s no connection between human and animal, it wont work.
The trainer recalled a labradoodle named Cash who had been with him for the past couple of months. He went home with his veteran last week.
“[The veteran] worked with Cash during his preparing training and it was evident, I mean I could see it the second session in, but he felt it, the dog felt it, the other trainer, she said ‘does that happen like that regularly,’ and I said, ‘not this quick, not like that, this in its own right is kind of special,’” Gardner said. “Him and that veteran seemed to kind of have a good click to start with.”
He said a lot of this group comes in with a preconceived notion of what kind of dog they want, often German Shepherds or rottweilers, military type dogs they’re used to. Recently, he had one guy set on one like that.
“That being said, we have one veteran who’s about to graduate the program with a shitzui,” Gardner said, laughing.
He said he sees it all from manly men going home with “froo froo” dogs, as Gardner calls them, to veterans coming in withdrawn and non-conversational.
“Within six months, [they] may be chatter boxes,” he said. “It is about building relationships with each veteran. They’ve got to understand that definitely we’re not in it for the money, we’re not in it for the glory or the fame.”
By ADI standards, dogs graduate with at least three services they can provide as service dogs.
With the veterans they serve, PTSD tends to be the most common thing they see in addition to a lot of mental-health related issues and some physical.
Gardner spoke about a veteran who recently called him.
“He said, ‘Don, guess where I’m at,’” Gardner said. “He was giddy like a 15-year-old school boy.”
The man told Gardner he and another veteran friend were eating lunch, sitting down in a restaurant.
“That wasn’t too big of a deal if nobody had understood the backstory that the man had, that was the first time he had went into a restaurant and had set down and had meal in over seven years,” he said. “I said, ‘man that is great.’ He said, ‘we’ve got our dogs here, they’re under the table, everything’s great, it’s going good, I’m going to send you some pictures in a little bit.’”
Gardner said this same man — he was a rescue diver during the Vietnam War — used to live up in the mountains, a hermit, isolating himself from all human interaction, suffering from PTSD and more.
He said this man’s son ended up calling him; the veteran had dementia and asked Gardner if they could train his dad’s dog to find him in case he got lost, which, Service Dogs of Distinction was absolutely able to do.
Gardner said the dog had a leash with a note … if he was by himself, a person was to pick up his leash and tell him to find his owner [name withheld for privacy reasons].
He said they had him “get lost” in a mall. The veteran zigzagged all over and ended up on a bench outside on the other side of the building.
“It took 22 mins but the dog found him and it was fantastic,” Gardner said.
He said they also trained the dog to find the veteran’s car; because of the dementia, he would forget where he parked.
“I guess the biggest reward for myself is seeing someone regain another part of control of their own life,” Gardner said. “So much of their life has been controlled by what their doctor or therapist said, and what pill happened to be in that bottle they dumped out or what their spouse suggested, what their pastor or neighbor suggested, but, it’s seeing the legitimate, real-life changes in this.”
He had another graduate call him recently and tell him that that morning was the first that he could remember where ending his life wasn’t his first thought of the day.
Gardner asked him what his first was.
“He said, ‘well considering my dog was licking me in the face, was my dog’s got to [use the bathroom]’ [and] I knew in him, in that particular [phase] at that moment, it was working. His brain function was changing. There was a living, breathing, warm-blooded animal in his life showing affection, he had something to give affection back to.”
Gardner said they’ve all got the extended stories, but the success comes when they gain that self-worth again, the sense of direction and more.
“Seeing them get results with their dogs, seeing the benefit they get out of seeing, ‘I did this, I had a big part to do with this, I learned these training methods and I trained my dog with the help of this company I trained my dog to help me for the rest of its life,’” he said. “For them to be able to see their own accomplishments, they quit looking at their ‘I can’ts’ and they start looking more at the ‘I’cans,’ I guess. They do start looking more at what they might be able to do again.”
All of this combined, Gardner said, is what frustrates him most about the current “service dog” movement, he called it; the public taking advantage of the lack of laws around service dogs and their access to public places.
He said there isn’t any type of nationally governing body with any type of restrictions, no national certification and the Americans with Disabilities Act most rely on is very lax.
“The people that legitimately need it, it shines a bad light on all of it. It make everybody suspicious,” he said. “There definitely needs to be some legislation in place, without a doubt. Legislation in itself is needed but not all toward punishment. It doesn’t make sense to slow down and thicken up with red tape, it doesn’t make sense to put large restrictions or lengthy restrictions on training programs, but there does need to be some accountability by the training program.”