Three yellow Labrador retriever puppies arrived at a Caroline County farm this week to begin a lengthy journey of coaching and training to become service dogs for post-9/11 military veterans.
“We will coach the dogs through every scenario, so when the veteran actually gets that dog, none of that is new to the animal,” said Danique Masingill, president and co-founder of Leashes of Valor in Milford, located about 22 miles south of Fredericksburg. “The fosters have already done all that troubleshooting for us.”
The new puppies join nearly two dozen other potential service dogs that are already in an 18- to 24-month training pipeline with foster families living a variety of home settings they will most likely encounter in everyday life.
“We have dogs, cats, chickens, so the dogs get used to a country lifestyle,” said Karen Ivey of Montpelier, who has fostered over 20 dogs for Leashes of Valor over the last three years. “Then they’ll go to a home that has Girl Scouts and T-Ball.”
During the training period, fosters take the young dogs to sporting events, swim practice, restaurants, out-of-state family visits and even boating. The Leashes of Valor team remains connected to foster volunteers and the animals throughout the process, but the organization is in need of additional fosters who are essential in helping to provide service dogs to veterans at no cost.
“The more foster families we have, the more service dogs we can have in our program, and the more veterans we can serve,” said Kristin Davis, spokeswoman for the group.
Ivey’s motivation to foster dogs came after her son returned home following two deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. Ivey felt compelled to help veterans, like her son, who were having difficulty adjusting to society following arduous combat assignments.
“These dogs are going to be part of a veteran’s family and we need to make sure there are families committed to the cause,” said Ivey. “It’s not just raising these dogs as pets, but knowing they’re literally going to be saving someone’s life.”
Although a self-professed cat lover who admits she is now “converted” to loving dogs, Davis herself recently became a foster. For the last three weeks, she has hosted a 1-year-old named Colt, but on Monday, she traded Colt for one of the new arrivals.
“It’s sad when a dog leaves, but then you get another one,” said Davis. “I go into it knowing it’s not my dog and that he’s mine for a time and then he’s going to go and potentially save someone’s life. That feels really good to be a part of that.”
Masingill said some potential fosters may be concerned with the emotional impact of helping raise an animal that is not going to be theirs, but said those concerns quickly fade once the door is opened to meet others who have similar concerns.
“We don’t just drop off a dog and let you fend for yourself,” said Masingill. “It really brings you into the fold of the Leashes of Valor family and community. People quickly become friends, business associates.”
With Monday’s three arrivals, there are now 24 Leashes of Valor dogs in the training pipeline, all within a 50-mile radius of the facility. A recent outing at a large retail store at the Spotsylvania Towne Centre gave several fosters and their dogs an opportunity to evaluate progress and correct any issues in behavior requiring additional focus.
“We help coach the foster through those issues and teach them the next steps as to where the dog needs to be next,” said Masingill. “Then, the fosters at home continuously repeat this level of training.”
Although it costs about $25,000 to prepare each dog for duty as a service animal, Leashes of Valor picks up all those costs, including training, food, veterinary care and supplies. All the fosters have to provide is love and a home.
Jason Haag, chief executive officer of the organization and a retired Marine Corps captain, said thanks to generous donors throughout the U.S., veterans receive a Leashes of Valor service dog at no cost.
“We do not take any money from the government,” said Haag. “It’s all private donations.”
The three puppies that arrived in Milford on Monday were delivered by retired Army Maj. Chuck Ziegenfuss, founder of Hero Labradors in Decatur, Texas.
Ziegenfuss, who was severely wounded in action in 2005, received a service dog after that incident, but that companion passed away seven years later. The difficulty Ziegenfuss faced trying to locate another service dog led him to breed Labrador retrievers on his own, at no cost to veterans and first responders nationwide.
“I had a hard time finding another service dog because everywhere I went it was ridiculously expensive, or there was a two- to three-year waiting list,” said Ziegenfuss.
Since its founding in 2017, Leashes of Valor has placed 17 service dogs with post-9/11 veterans as far away as Montana suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues.
Once the dogs complete their training period, each animal is customized to meet the specific needs of the veteran the animal is assigned to. Veterans paired with new service dogs stay with their new companions on the 20-acre farm in Milford for 10 days to receive personalized training on how to handle and live with their own service dog.
Jason Searls of Stafford County, a former Marine Corps military police officer, has had his service dog, Hawkeye, for the last 18 months. Searls said he had never taken a dog out in public before meeting Hawkeye, but the 10 days of hands-on training at the rural farm built a bond of trust and friendship between him and the animal.
“It’s baby steps at first,” said Searls. “You go to the movies, go to a restaurant, kind of looking at my life and putting me and him in those situations. So when I left after those 10 days, I was confident we could go anywhere that I needed to with my family and be successful.”
Army veteran Pamela Jeffcoat of Yorktown has had her Leashes of Valor service dog, Nimitz, for five months. She is thrilled to have a trusted companion by her side everywhere she goes to help her cope with everyday life.
“It’s life changing. It’s easier to get out and do things,” said Jeffcoat. “He knows when I’m OK, if something’s off. He really has saved my life.”
To learn more about foster opportunities, visit LeashesofValor.org.
James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438