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Veteran finds peace, help through Paws for Patriots

Tahlequah Daily Press - 1/10/2019

Jan. 10--Thanks to a program that began in McAlester in 2017, one local veteran has a service dog to assist with everyday tasks.

The Paws for Patriots program was started at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, a minimum security facility for men, with dogs rescued by the Pittsburg County Animal Shelter. Inmates who are also veterans train the dogs for over a year until they are able to be "adopted" through Paws for Patriots.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh issued a statement about the program.

"Our partnership with Partners for the Animals Welfare Society and the Pittsburg County Animal Shelter is a truly inspirational one for our inmates. They get to train special, faithful companions for the men and women who've sacrificed so much for their country," said Allbaugh. "They also gain something of value, a skill the can offer society when they get out. Additionally, programs like this help improve security on the yard giving inmates something positive to do with their time in prison."

Cherokee County resident Angela Walker, 44, is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and she had been in contact with a few organizations that had service animals before finding PFP.

"Many of the organizations have a lot of criteria, and if you meet the criteria, you have to go out of town for training for several weeks," said Walker.

After getting information from a social worker at the Muskogee VA hospital about Paws for Patriots, Walker began the approval process. After a pre-application, then the application, Walker had a home visit with one of the Paws for Patriots dogs.

Known at the time as Sarah, the pit bull mix had been selected for the PFP program by Pittsburg County Animal Shelter staff. She was scheduled to be put down the next day.

Walker took several trips to McAlester and met with Robert Thornton, the inmate who had trained Sarah for 15 months.

Walker took Sarah, whom she renamed Seraphina, home on Aug. 31, 2018.

"She does over 20 tasks. She helps with any mobility issues I have. If I drop my cane and my back hurts, she will pick it up," said Walker.

Among other tasks, Seraphina can open and close doors, turn lights on and off, and get items out of the refrigerator. She can pick up pens, keys, and cell phones without damaging the items.

She also helps with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and notices when Walker has migraines. Seraphina was trained for PTSD issues, and according to a McAlester News-Capital article, she helped her trainer after he was diagnosed.

"When I have nightmares, she wakes me up. When I disassociate, she comes and nudges me. She knows everything that I am feeling," said Thornton.

When Seraphina senses anxiety, she will lean into the person, or if the person is sitting, the dog will stand on him or her with her front paws and apply deep pressure.

Helping with Walker's claustrophobia, Seraphina will position herself between Walker and people in a crowd or someone too close who may seem to be a threat to Walker.

"If she is not listening to me, it could be that she's evaluating the situation," said Walker.

If Seraphina needs extra training due to Walker's needs, they can get it through Paws for Patriots. In fact, Seraphina was not specifically trained to pick up a cane, but she has learned to do so.

One thing Walker does not care for is the attention Seraphina brings to her. People will often notice the dog and begin talking to Walker or ask to pet Seraphina.

Walker said that even after six months, she is still trying to be more assertive about asking people not to pet her dog. She is hoping to educate others about not interacting with service animals, especially when they are wearing a vest and are "on duty."

"I initially let a few people pet her when I first got her because she had just been trained, and she was very structured and rigid, but she started pulling away from me, so I stopped," said Walker. "If you see someone who has a dog, don't pet the dog. It makes common sense not to walk up and pet a strange dog."

Walker suggests not trying to talk to, whistle at, pet, or try to distract a service animal.

"A service dog is a medical device, if you want to look at it that way. Not all disabilities are visible, and the animal needs to be attentive in case of seizures or other needs of the owner," said Walker. "A surprising thing is that people with kids tell them, 'That's a service dog. It's working. You don't pet her.'"

Some people with service dogs may have limited strength and a window of time they can be at a task, such as shopping for groceries.

"Don't feel like someone is being rude if they won't stop and talk. Maybe they only have strength to stay up and walking for a limited time, or they have anxiety about being in public," said Walker. "It does get kind of frustrating when I want to go somewhere and do something and leave, but people are constantly wanting to pet her."

While some may classify service dogs as a "medical device," Seraphina is not without feelings and doggy needs, and Walker thinks it's a misconception that service animals are mistreated.

"It's definitely a learning experience for me. I expected this dog to come in like a robot and perform a task and have no interaction. I'm learning her, as well," said Walker. "She loves to work. When I first got her, I wasn't yet approved to take her to work. After three days, she was picking up her vest, or if I picked it up, she would put her head in it."

Walker said she would recommend Paws for Patriots to other veterans.

"I have no hesitation in referring people to the program, as Seraphina is very well-trained. They did a fantastic job matching me to a dog that met my needs due to my disabilities. Everyone I met who was involved in the program was great," said Walker. "I also like that there is continuing contact and checkups on how we both are doing. Any questions or concerns I have are addressed quickly."

One aspect of the program Walker is grateful for is that she has not had to pay for anything.

"With some programs, you have to fundraise because the dogs are a lot of money," said Walker. "It's immeasurable the ways she's helped me. My disabilities will never go away, but she's a big help."

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