Less than one percent of all American citizens serve in the U.S. Military, and not everyone who returns from their service does so unscathed.
Four Paws and A Wake Up, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) non-profit located in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Their mission is “To help U.S. Veterans gain independence,” and was founded by Andrea Joseph, who runs the organization full time.
Joseph was an attorney for 15 years, and later a Criminal Justice Professor at NMSU. “I was ready to retire,” Joseph said, “so this is my retirement, helping Veterans.”
Joseph comes from a military family and felt called to do the work she’s doing. David Micahel Breshears, Joseph’s cousin, was a U.S. Army Ranger and member of the 82nd Airborne who lost his life to suicide.
“There are a lot of Veterans in need who may not realize we can help them,” Joseph said, “and there are a lot of ways a trained service dog can get them back to an independent life.”
Who qualifies for a Four Paws and a Wake Up service dog?
According to Joseph, Veterans with PTSD, mobility issues, and/ or a traumatic brain injury qualify for the program.
“Not all Veterans are aware that there is no charge for our service dogs,” she noted. “If they qualify, the dog is placed with the Veteran for free. We have a lengthy application process to ensure the right dog is placed with the right Veteran.”
The application is 17 pages long and requires a personal interview, and discussions with a Veteran’s doctors, spouse, and significant others. After the specific needs of the Veteran are identified, they are matched with a service dog.
“We need to ensure the dog can meet the Veteran’s needs,” said Joseph, “and we want to ensure the Veteran can take care of the dog once they are placed.”
Training for each dog is a 12-24 months long process. Every dog is monitored for temperament and, sometimes a dog isn’t the right fit for being a service animal. In those cases, they work to find a good home with someone that may need a companion/therapy animal but not a trained service dog.
The training is extensive, and the dogs are capable of many different tasks.
“Depending on the needs of the Veteran,” Joseph said, “our service dogs can do things like get water from the fridge, help pull a wheelchair, put dirty clothes into a washing machine, navigate a crowded airplane and sit calmly, and even help Veterans get out of bed in the morning.”
Care of the animals
The trainers at Four Paws and a Wake Up are rotated so that the dogs do not become too attached to any one trainer. There is a trainer who comes in and spends the night so that the dogs are never alone.
“When they get placed, then they start to realize, ‘this is home now,’” Joseph said, “and so making a good match is important.”
Just like humans, each dog can perform better or worse at some skills, so it’s important to know what skills any one dog performs well and areas where they need help.
“The dogs let you know,” Joseph said. “They are good at letting you know what they can do and what they need help with.”
The business side
When asked how she raised the funding for Four Paws and a Wake Up, Joseph said, “You would be surprised how few grants exist for service animals. It’s a challenge raising funds, but we’re doing it.”
“We applied for grants, took in donations, did fundraising… I sort of put everything together a bit at a time,” she said, “and we also have the Veteran’s bricks outside.”
When a visitor comes to the front door of their main building, they can see bricks laid out to honor Veterans. Four Paws and a Wake Up sells the bricks, which can be customized by the person ordering.
“We’re a non-profit serving Veterans,” Joseph said, and this felt like a good way to honor the community we are serving while helping to raise funds.”
How people can help
Joseph said well-meaning people offer to purchase food for them, “but they should ask us first,” she said, “as we only buy specific, high-quality food for our dogs.”
She added they are always looking for blankets, towels, and noisemakers. Things that make noise are used to habituate the dogs to sounds they might hear day to day and can be used to show the dogs they don’t need to fear it.
“People can call us,” said Joseph, “and we’ll let them know what we need.”
Being relatively new, the first six service dogs are still in training, and Joseph is proud of the progress made.
“This is a mission I feel strongly about,” Joseph said, “and it gives me a tremendous amount of pride knowing we’re helping Veterans lead healthy, productive lives.”
She added that they have a facility in North Carolina, so if a Veteran is west of the Mississippi, they work with the Las Cruces location. If east of the Mississippi, they work through North Carolina.
“I’m excited about the future,” she said, “it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point, and we’ve only just begun.”