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How a Chance Meeting Brought Rescue Dogs and Military Veterans Together

Long before she began training dogs, Felecia’s passion was rescuing them. “I’ve been with many rescues. Fostering and vetting, giving shots… I’ve done it all, really.” On a broader scale, however, Felecia is more than just an animal rescuer and foster; she’s taken on the heavy responsibility of abandoned animals who have nowhere else to go.

There’s no animal control where Felecia lives. “Animals wander the land. People move out and leave 7 dogs behind, and there’s no place to take them. The sheriff’s office does their best, really, but the solution to pet overpopulation here is, ‘if they’re a problem, shoot them.'”

Felecia is determined not to let that happen. She currently fosters 13 dogs of all breeds and sizes, from “Tinkerbell” the Chihuahua to “Micah” the Belgian Malinois. As much as she loves opening her home to foster dogs in need of a family, she regrets that she has to. “I’ve lost count of how many dogs I’ve fostered. I wish people would just spay and neuter their pets; that’s the solution to all this. But until then, my home is full of homeless dogs.”

A few months ago, Felecia met Karen, the President of Sauver des Chiens. She instantly realized that Karen was a kindred spirit, and Felecia joined the organization. Sauver des Chiens frequently takes in dogs in dire straits. “Rika” had been shot and left for dead. But she has flourished as Felecia’s foster.

Rika
Rika, a gunshot victim

What sets Felecia apart from all rescue workers is the scope of her compassion. She not only rescues dogs: she trains them as service dogs for military veterans. It’s even more meaningful because she’s a veteran herself.

Felecia Army
Felecia, during her military service

Felecia joined the United States Army in February of 1976. She retired in 2001 with the rank of E-8 Master Sergeant after 25 years of service to her country. During that time she served both active duty and the National Guard, performing every task from information systems chief to playing in the Army band.

Fifteen years after retiring from the army, her military service and passion for dog rescue merged. “I had always loved the idea of training service dogs,” she recalls, “I thought about how wonderful it would be if I could somehow combine saving dogs with helping veterans, but the idea never really took off until one day, when I brought my dog with me to Home Depot.”

Felecia often brings her German Shepherd Dog, Kilo, with her to Home Depot. Living out in the country, he doesn’t get much socialization, so this is a way for him to spend more time interacting with people and exploring different environments. As Felecia stood in one of the aisles, Kilo patiently laid down at her feet. A man came up to her and complimented her on Kilo’s excellent behavior. “He’d make a really great service dog with that docile nature,” he told her.

As it turns out, that man was Don Gardner, a trainer with “Service Dogs of Distinction”. This group trains dogs for veteran service, matches them with a veteran, and even pays for all food and vetting for the rest of the dogs’ life. The veterans pay nothing.

Felecia immediately saw this as an opportunity to broaden the work of Sauver des Chiens, and “Paws for Patriots” was born. Working in conjunction with Service Dogs of Distinction, Paws for Patriots trains the dogs in Sauver des Chiens for veteran service.

It takes rigorous training to become a service dog. “Once a week we go to class with Service Dogs of Distinction, and the rest of the time, I train them at home. We don’t teach them commands; we teach them to follow hand signals. We train them to devote 100% of their focus to their veteran.” Felecia is trained alongside her dogs so that one day she can be a fully certified trainer.

Her current trainee is “Bouffant”, who was one of an abandoned litter of seven. Her brother “Harpo” might be another candidate, but she’s watching to see what traits he displays. “Not all dogs are meant to be service dogs,” she laughs, “some are meant to sit on your couch and eat ice cream.”

Bouffant
Bouffant, a future military veteran service dog

In addition to her training, Bouffant frequently visits the local VA for socialization.  Her visits are always welcome and anticipated. “This helps me, this helps the veterans, this helps the dogs, this helps the VA…. The nurses even come out and take the dogs around. The dogs have more free-range than I do!”

So when Bouffant passes her training, how will she serve her veteran? “Our dogs mostly manage PTSD, anxiety disorders, and provide emotional stability. It’s something these men and women have lost. Then if she passes her training she will be paired with a veteran with whom she is a good fit, just like any pet adoption.”

The biggest reward to Felecia is seeing the difference these dogs make in the life of a veteran. “A service dog gives a person back a piece of their life that they lost. Someone who sits at home can maybe now go outside. This may allow a veteran to go to the store by themselves or get a job. Or most importantly, to just have a companion.”

“The biggest part is the friendship. That’s the most important thing.”

Felecia’s greatest hope is that Paws for Patriots will be so successful that more communities and organizations will follow suit. “I hope this goes over so well that the veteran aspect is half what our rescue does. In the meantime, I do what little bit I can, when I can, and while I can.”

Her service to her country has another enduring legacy: her 24-year-old son is currently in Korea, following deployment to Afghanistan.