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Service Dogs 'Life-Changing' For Local Veterans

For about a decade after he retired from 26 years of service in the U.S. Army in 2006, Larry Debar didn’t think he needed a service dog to help him in his civilian life in Homer City.

“I thought the dog would benefit someone else other than me,” Debar said.

But seeing a working dog in action on a trip to Florida earlier this year started to change Debar’s mind. At the urging of his wife, Holly, he soon dropped off an application for a free service dog through the Guardian Angels nonprofit program in Williston, Fla.

“It wasn’t but maybe a month or so -- it might’ve been sooner -- I have a phone call that said I was qualified,” Debar said. “Happiest day of my life.”

Debar is one of six Pennsylvania veterans to receive a free service dog – his, a German Shepherd Dog named Shiloh – from Guardian Angels this year as a result of local fundraising efforts by Veterans Cable Services, Inc. and the Pittsburgh Foundation.

He and others spent 10 days in Florida training their new best friends and returned home about three weeks ago. The group spent Friday morning at the Marriott Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh brushing up on dog-friendly commands under the tutelage of Carol Borden, founder and executive director of Guardian Angels.

Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Guardian Angels Executive Director Carol Borden sends veterans and their service dogs through serpentine walking motions during a training session in the Marriott Hotel Downtown on Friday, July 15, 2016.

“We have seen people in our facility that have been homebound, self-isolated for 25 years. Some people haven’t even been out of their own bedroom for six months,” Borden said. “There’s no wonder the suicide rate is off the charts.”

According to a July 7 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, American veterans committed suicide at a rate of roughly 20 deaths per day. But Borden said no vets who’ve received dogs from her nonprofit have committed suicide or gone through a divorce since the company launched in 2010.

“Within just a few days of working with their dogs, we have them fully integrated into working in public again. They’re able to go back into stores, grocery stores, the malls, Walmart,” Borden said. “That’s kind of a four-letter word for most of these fellows. They don’t want to go out, they don’t want to be in crowds, they’re not comfortable, but we get them back out.”

Borden said it takes an average of about two years and $22,000 to properly train each dog, depending on what specific disabilities – physical or psychological – his or her future master might have.

She said nationwide roughly 2,000 service dogs finish their training each year, and Guardian Angels has about 80 going through the program at any given time.

She said the number of veterans and civilians who could benefit from service dogs is much higher. Guardian Angels’ waiting list usually stands at about 150.

“There’s no government funding,” Borden said. “Insurance doesn’t pay for these dogs, and yet they’re doing an amazing job.”

Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Carol Borden, Executive Director of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs , sits with Huey in the Marriott Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh on Friday, July 15, 2016. Huey is a 15-month-old German Shepherd that is undergoing training to become a full mobility dog.

Getting grant funding from the federal government or coverage from insurance companies would make it easier to produce more service dogs each year, Borden said. Two pieces of legislation in the U.S. House aim to help with those costs: H.R. 4977 and H.R. 4764.

Borden said insurance companies have been resistant to the idea of providing coverage for service dogs, even though she believes it would save them money in the long run. 

“Once these fellows get a service dog, they have requirements for taking care of it, so what goes from being a very sedentary lifestyle with their disability – they have to get up off the couch,” Borden said. “So, your COPD issues start improving, your obesity issues start improving, your diabetes issues start improving. All those things, with a more active lifestyle, begin to improve.”

Since funding for service dogs is entirely private for now, Tony Accamando of Veterans Cable Services said his organization started raising money -- their goal, nearly $500,000 in all -- on Veterans Day 2015 to pay for 22 Pennsylvania-bound service dogs. Less than a year into the campaign, Accamando said his company has already raised enough to pay for nine dogs.

Joe Fairbanks, a local U.S. Navy veteran and board member of the nonprofit Hire Our Heroes, also donated through a Pittsburgh Foundation fund.

“For many veterans, especially those suffering with things like (post-traumatic stress disorder) or (traumatic brain injury), one of the greatest things we can do for them is to provide them with a service dog,” he said.

As for Shiloh, Debar said he “couldn’t ask for anything better.”

“Most of the mentality of everybody is, ‘I don’t need a service dog,’ or, ‘A service dog could benefit someone else other than me,’ but that’s not true,” Debar said. “If you have one of those disabilities – which can be a lonely, dark place – they can definitely help you out.”