Don Gardner has worked with and trained dogs for more than 30 years.

In 2016, the Faulkner County resident realized the need out there to help veterans and started the nonprofit, Service Dogs of Distinction, with co-founder Marsha Wyatt, which trains out of Rose Bud and Fayetteville free of charge to veterans, 

The training organization uses the Assistance Dogs International training program.

Gardner said the dogs come from rehoming, animal shelters and rescues and aren’t “breed specific,” but do look for ones more calm natured. 

“We like to say it’s not the outside [that matters] it’s the inside,” he said.

The trainers bring the dogs into their homes and start the “foundational skills,” — at least 11 including basic obedience — before they are paired with a veteran.

After a veteran has gone through their 30-day preparing training, Gardner said the human begins interacting with several dogs at various levels. 

He said it’s the dog most often that lets them know when they have found their veteran.

The trainer said if there’s no connection between human and animal, it won’t work, recalling a labradoodle named Cash, who went home with his veteran recently. Both clicked very well during that early training. 

“I mean, I could see it the second session in,” Gardner said, adding that bond is special and rare. 

He said during training times, he sees it all, from sending veterans home with German Shepards and Shih Tzus, to veterans coming in withdrawn to being “chatterboxes” in six months time. 

“It is about building relationships with each veteran,” Gardner said. “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.”

Gardner said when a veteran reaches out, they’re usually at the end of their rope.

He said the mentality of the military is to get the job done and most are conditioned to keep going despite what their body is telling them, no asking for help — typically viewed as a sign of weakness — with medication as the one solution that is most offered. 

He said he’s had clients tell him that they self-medicate, drink and do other things to deal with what is going on. 

Gardner told the Log Cabin Democrat about one veteran in this situation. His sons were in sports but he had never been to any of their games because of his mental-health-related issues. When overseas, he told  Gardner he’d use those numbing agents to suppress the problems — everyone did.

Stateside, he told Gardner his family would go out to eat, but he would come up with an excuse to stay home, hiding what was going on. 

“We may be the one last thing they approach so we want that to be very beneficial from the get-go,” Gardner said.

To start, they fill out an application online then meet for one-on-one interviews and talk about the 10- to 15-month commitment. 

Due to their trust issues, Gardner said veterans can come in anxious, distrusting, maybe depressed and suicidal.

“[That veteran’s] success story went from being so nervous at the interview [...] to being able to go to football games and practices with his boys – the dog right there with him,” he said. 

Gardner said one picture the veteran’s wife sent him of the veteran and his dog and his son still in full uniform standing together after a football game, sums up what he views as success

“That was the first time he had ever seen his boy play,” Gardner said, smiling.

Dogs graduate with at least three services — ADI standards —  they can provide, which range from waking their veteran from nightmares, standing behind their veteran and alerting them to when someone is approaching as in line at a grocery store, “blocking,” or standing in between their veteran and people and fetching certain items. 

Gardner spoke about a veteran who recently called him who was “giddy like a 15-year-old school boy,” because he and another veteran friend were sitting down eating 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 sat down and had a meal in over seven years,” he said. 

This same veteran used to isolate himself from human interaction, suffering from PTSD and dementia, until his son called Gardner to see if he could train his dad’s dog to find him in case he got lost. 

Not only were they able to do that — the dog had a leash with a note and if he was by himself, a person could pick up the leash and tell him to find his owner and he would — Service Dogs of Distinction was also able to train the dog to find his veteran’s car when he forgot where he parked. 

“I guess the biggest reward for myself is seeing someone regain another part of control of their own life,” Gardner said.

Gardner said they all have stories — like the veteran who recently called him and said the first thing he thought of that morning was having to take his dog out to use the bathroom versus the usual suicidal morning thoughts he had been plagued with for so long — and the success comes when they gain that self-worth again.

“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 [...] to help me for the rest of its life,’ he said. Gardner said when the veterans see that accomplishment, they quit looking at their “I can’ts” and start seeing the “I cans,” and what they might be able to do again.