Service Dogs for Wounded Warriors

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HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii —┬áHonolulu’s weather, scenery and island lifestyle can make it easy for Hickam Air Force Base residents to forget there are servicemembers fighting on two battlefronts almost 8,000 miles away.

Kristen Ness, Hickam Community Housing resident, can’t forget the sacrifices some Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have made because she has a large, yellow reminder always at her side.

“Finn,” short for Finnegan, is a yellow Labrador retriever puppy that Ness is training as a service dog for the Marine

Finnegan, a service dog in training, practices operating a light switch on command. His trainer, Hickam Air Force Base resident Kristen Ness, volunteers her time training service dogs to help wounded wariors. (U.S. Air Force photo/Oscar A. Hernandez)

Finnegan, a service dog in training, practices operating a light switch on command. His trainer, Hickam Air Force Base resident Kristen Ness, volunteers her time training service dogs to help wounded wariors. (U.S. Air Force photo/Oscar A. Hernandez)

Barracks at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay. Hawaii Fi-Do, a non-profit service dog organization, and multiple wounded warrior organizations teamed up to get some dogs trained for injured veterans who may need their service. Ness, one of two dog behavioral specialists on the Island, was eager to volunteer her time to help the partnership.

“Wounded warriors coming home prefer a dog over a cane,” said Ness. “These are young men and women who want to be independent and productive. A service dog can help them achieve this in such ways as opening doors, flipping light switches, fetching desired objects, acting as a focal point to ride out symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and providing much needed love and companionship.”

Susan Luehrs, Hawaii Fi-Do founder and executive director, said her organization is eager to help any wounded servicemember who needs assistance. Whether the request comes from the Army Wounded Warrior Program or even directly from an injured person, Hawaii Fi-Do makes the servicemember their priority.

“The service dog industry has come together to support our wounded warriors,” said Luehrs. “That could mean helping any combat veteran. This is an all-volunteer effort for us. There is no charge for any service dog for our wounded warriors.”

Training service dogs can be an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Since wounded warriors are given their dogs for free, Luehrs counts on volunteers and donations to keep the program going. People with particular skills like Ness are indispensable. Oddly enough, Ness didn’t always know she wanted to train service dogs. She originally pursued a radiology degree but said she wasn’t happy in her work.

“I still wanted to help people, but I wasn’t sure how,” said Ness. “It came to me as I was watching the show on Animal Planet, ‘Dogs with Jobs.’ I remember the joy on a paralyzed man’s face when he was teamed with a service dog. The freedom it symbolized was amazing.”

Shortly after realizing her new passion, Ness entered a grueling program at Triple Crown Dog Academy in Texas. Upon graduation, she started her own dog training business, usually dealing with the worst behavior problems.

Ness’ expertise with training dogs fell right into line with the mission of Hawaii Fi-Do. According to their fact sheet, Hawaii Fi-Do’s service dogs “learn more than 80 commands, are temperament tested, pass strict health guidelines and must pass the standards of Assistant Dog International before being placed with a well-matched client.”

Soccer, Finnegan and Cowboy (left to right) take a break from training to pose for a photo. Kristen Ness, Hickam Air Force Base resident, is training Finnegan to become a service dog for a barracks of wounded warriors. Ness volunteers her skills with Hawaii Fi-Do, a non-profit organization that is providing service dogs to wounded warriors at no charge. Soccer and Cowboy are Ness family pets that have advanced obedience skills. (Air Force photo/Oscar A. Hernandez)

Soccer, Finnegan and Cowboy (left to right) take a break from training to pose for a photo. Kristen Ness, Hickam Air Force Base resident, is training Finnegan to become a service dog for a barracks of wounded warriors. Ness volunteers her skills with Hawaii Fi-Do, a non-profit organization that is providing service dogs to wounded warriors at no charge. Soccer and Cowboy are Ness family pets that have advanced obedience skills. (Air Force photo/Oscar A. Hernandez)

Finn, Ness’ foster dog, will probably finish his training way ahead of schedule. Ness said a typical service dog takes about two years and $20,000 to train. Finn is only 13 months old, and he is already working on the complicated service skills portion of the program. Once graduated, Finn is scheduled to be a “barracks dog.”

“Finn is really sociable; not a one-person dog,” said Ness. “He will serve, comfort and support and entire barracks of wounded warriors.”

Ness already has another wounded warrior service dog lined up once Finn moves to his new home. She said her family tends to get attached to the foster dogs, but even her 3-year-old son knows when the dogs leave, they are going to help people who really need it.

For more information about Hawaii Fi-Do, go to www.hawaiifido.org. For more information about the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program, go to https://www.aw2.army.mil/index.html.

Source: 2nd Lt. Jason Smith
 15th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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