ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A group of volunteer veterans are using their time to help other veterans by raising dogs to be service animals for them.
The Asheville branch of Warrior Canine Connection trains about four to five dogs at a time and has been in operation for four years.
The Warrior Canine Connection nonprofit launched officially in 2011, and it is currently based in Maryland. To date, thousands of veterans have participated in the program, according to the organization’s data.
What You Need To Know
Warrior Canine Connection has paired more than a 100 service dogs with veterans with disabilities
Veterans help train the dogs
Asheville branch has assisted with about 20 dogs in the last four years
Stacie Litsenburger, a 24-year Army veteran, volunteers with the group as a puppy parent, taking care of a dog in training when they’re not at the school.
“To be a combat veteran myself, and to see the impact of war and what it does to our nation’s soldiers. I think to, and I know, to raise a puppy and help a fellow veteran is worth everything. To see that bond ... they can be a great family member, they can get out go to the grocery store and manage their own anxiety. I just think that’s worth everything,” Litsenburger said.
Litsenburger served multiple combat tours in the Middle East during her time in the U.S. Army. So far, she has cared for five puppies whom were in Asheville for training.
Outside of Asheville, the organization’s other locations are in Palo Alto, California and then its headquarters in Boyds, Maryland, according to a spokesperson.
So far, 5,300 veterans have participated in the program and 114 service dogs have been assigned to veterans.
Veteran volunteers assist in socializing the dogs, participating in training programs with professional trainers and then the fully trained and graduated service dogs are assigned to veterans with disabilities, according to WCC.
“They’ve been through an experience just about as much as you could throw at them,” said one volunteer veteran training assistant, Matthew Estridge.
An Iraq war and U.S. Army veteran, Estridge is several months in to working with yellow lab Arliss.
“Every time I came in here, I started working with Arliss, so it was a connection pretty much right off the bat,” Estridge said about he and Arliss’ training sessions in Asheville.
Arliss’ training will help assist with object recovery, anxiety response and other useful tools for recovering veterans.
“There was things that I was doing, like holding my breath or posturing myself in a certain way. He will come in and break that up,” Estridge said about his own volunteering time with Arliss.
The training and assistance from a service dog can be critical to helping veterans socialize, complete tasks and establish routine when returning from war.
“Just a small thing like dropping your debit card, when you’ve been waiting for weeks to go shopping because you have anxiety. And you get up to the checkup and you drop your debit card, and you’re already feeling lightheaded, and you’re panicking,” Estridge listed as an example.
In addition to his other skills, Arliss is learning to turn lights on and off and more emotional support response.
“I mean, there’s just so many little things that they can do that help a veteran out in their everyday lives,” Estridge added.
But, the service dogs do not just help veterans with disabilities after graduation. The training helps the volunteer veterans find purpose. Estridge was injured when his tank exploded on a combat tour in Iraq in 2007. Now, on disability, he says the emotional bond he has formed with these dogs is why he keeps coming back to help.
“For veterans, it’s a hard thing to deal with sometimes when you get your disability, and you’re not able to work. And this gives me a way to give back, I know these dogs are going to go and change the lives of other veterans. And, it’s an amazing thing,” Estridge said with Arliss by his side.
The program has meant so much to Estridge, he’s actually applying to receive one of these dogs himself. And who knows, he might even get to train it.
“Having another … a partner that you can walk through life with, is everything,” Estridge said.
The Warrior Canine Connection location in Asheville is in need of puppy parent volunteers. The costs of veterinarian care and food are covered, and all families are welcome to apply to volunteer as long as you live within an hour of Asheville. For details, you can go to Warrior Canine Connection’s website.