- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Veterans working with service dogs through Paws for Purple Hearts all said the same thing at the recent grand opening of the new Fairbanks training facility: “I’m not training the dog. The dog is training me.”

Paws for Purple Hearts is the first program of its kind to offer therapeutic intervention for veterans and active-duty military personnel. The program teaches those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to train service dogs for fellow veterans with combat-related disabilities. The dog/veteran trust is built upon the tradition of veterans helping veterans.

Fairbanks is home to the fifth training facility in the country and the first in Alaska, reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (https://bit.ly/2gDgwYm). Located at 3304 International St., it is already making a difference in the lives of local veterans.

Currently, the program offers two classes every week and serves up to 17 veterans and active military. Six dogs are enrolled in the program, and a seventh may soon be added to the group.

At the Nov. 10 grand opening, veteran Kent Storey sat in a wheelchair beside a golden retriever service dog and demonstrated how the dog could retrieve a cell phone he dropped on the floor. The dogs also learn to do routine tasks like tug open doors and switch lights on and off.

Locations throughout the large room provided displays with information about how the program works. Young volunteer guides gave personalized tours and explained how the training includes dog handling skills, dog psychology, teaching methods, philosophies of dog learning and early puppy training.

The training begins when they are puppies, with a four- to 12-month-long training regime. The dogs learn more than 100 commands, and the training encourages dogs to think and solve problems. The commands they learn help veterans re-integrate into civilian life.

Once training is complete, dogs are given to veterans who have sustained combat-related injuries. These dogs reside with their new owners for the rest of their lives. There is no cost to the veteran.

The Fairbanks program began here just a few years ago, under the guidance of managers Nathan Collin and Betsey Jacobs.

“They’re the magic,” said Greg Sipple, chief executive officer of the program.

Several veterans were on hand at the special opening night to share their personal experiences.

“Alaska has the highest population of veterans per capita than anywhere else in the country,” Army veteran Jeff Bizzarro told the audience at the grand opening. “Every 65 minutes, a vet takes their own life. That’s 22 a day. That gets me because I came very close.”

He believes the actual number is probably much higher.

Since working with Paws for Purple Hearts, Bizzarro said he has learned mindfulness and how to live in the present moment.

“The reason I’m standing here this evening is because of Eric,” he said, looking over at the golden retriever service dog nearby. “Eric can sense when I am triggered and in distress. The wag of a tail, a lick on the chin and it gets me back to the present moment.”

The dog, he added, keeps him from having additional meltdowns. Watching that despair slip away, he said, is “like a passing cloud, I just watch it go by.”

Through the dog, he said, he experiences authentic, unconditional love.

“His sole motivation is to love, to please,” he said. “I experienced an inner peace and calm. I learned to live again. And I have struggled since 2008. He kept me grounded. It works.”

“These are the lessons I want to share with others,” he added. “Paws not pills.”

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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