BOWERSTON - One local organization is giving back to those who have served their country. Dogs 4 Warriors was formed in December of 2013 by Sheila Slezak, a Harrison County woman who has trained dogs for police departments for over 30 years. Slezak, a Certified Animal Behaviorist, is the owner of Ohio Valley K-9, located at 35020 Gundy Ridge Rd.
Dogs 4 Warriors trains dogs to be given to veterans to help them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that affects nearly one in five of the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a study from The George Washington University. Sadly, statistics show one veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes in the United States.
Slezak says she was inspired to start training service dogs for veterans, a group that includes her husband, oldest daughter and many friends, after seeing that veterans just weren't getting the help they need. In addition, she knew that many veterans were falling victim to scams from people who charge exorbitant fees for dogs that have not actually had any training.
Three veterans stand with their service dogs from Dogs 4 Warriors on the Conotton Creek Trail in Harrison County.
A service dog trained by Dogs 4 Warriors wears her vest identifying her as such. German Shepherds are the most common breed trained as service dogs for veterans.
Slezak gives away dogs for free. She obtains the dogs through a variety of avenues: rescue shelters, puppy donations from breeders, or dogs that were obtained for her K-9 training but turn out to be better suited as service dogs.
"Even friends from Europe have donated and shipped dogs," Slezak said.
Right now, Slezak has 30 dogs on hand. Food costs alone range from $2,500 to $3,000 a month, and most of the costs are paid out of pocket. However, Dogs 4 Warriors has received some donations and has a few fundraising avenues, including a benefit concert which will be held at the Scio American Legion Post 482 on May 17 at 7 p.m. Featured artists will be Garblejunk, Vent, Act of Violence, Mind Pulp, Lost Chapter, The Valley Boys, and Aaron Emerson, and the cost will be $5 at the door.
"A lot of people assume the government is paying for this but they're not," Slezak said.
30 dogs may seem excessive, but Slezak has over 100 veterans waiting for service dogs. Seven to ten are given out each month. Word has spread about Dogs 4 Warriors, and veterans come from all over the nation to inquire about getting their own dog.
"They come from pretty much every state," Slezak said. "It's easier for them to come here than come up with $20,000 for a dog from somewhere else."
While a veteran's dog is being trained, he or she stays with Slezak free of charge.
"There is never a charge for anything. We are a tightly knit brotherhood, and leaving any veteran behind is not an option," the Dogs 4 Warriors website explains.
The dogs are spayed or neutered, given all necessary shots, microchipped, and sent off with three months worth of flea and tick medication and wormer. Slezak explained that PTSD service dogs are different from emotional support animals. The service dogs are specially trained to have excellent obedience skills and stay by their owner's side 24/7. They're trained to wake owners up from nightmares and watch out for them so they're not startled by others approaching, a common issue with PTSD.
Slezak added that even if a veteran has a pet, he or she can still seek out a PTSD service dog, which are usually German Shepherds but can be other breeds such as labradors.
"As much as you're attached to your pet, they aren't trained for specific tasks. These dog know the difference when they have their vests on," she said.
The dogs can also accompany their owners anywhere, including shopping areas and schools, in the same manner that service dogs for physically handicapped individuals can. Each dog is uniquely paired with a veteran, and receives a minimum of 400 hours of training.
Bill Neal, a Mt. Pleasant resident, can attest to the value of having a PTSD service dog. Nearly two months ago he received his dog, Thor, from Dogs 4 Warriors. Neal joined the military straight out of high school in 1988. He served in the Gulf War and did three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan before being medically retired in 2010. Neal suffers from PTSD, but says Thor has improved his life and lowered his anxiety level dramatically. He can spend more time in crowds with Thor by his side, and can now go to restaurants knowing Thor will have his back and keep him from being startled. The dog is trained not to leave Neal's side, and can sense when he's getting anxious.
"The dog's been amazing, just excellent," Neal said. He added that veterans who have received a dog from Dogs 4 Warriors call Slezak "our angel."
"Two months I've had this dog, and it's been better than seeing a shrink or any medicine. It's been a complete turnaround for me, I can't thank Sheila enough."
Slezak has received nothing but gratitude from all the veterans to whom she's given dogs.
"I have veterans who have been here, received a dog and moved closer to here so they can volunteer and help out," Slezak said. "It's just changed their whole outlook. Some were hopeless, but with the dog I see hope for the first time."
While she says the experience is worth the cost, Slezak can no longer do regular pet training like she used to, and only does K-9 unit training upon request. She's currently training a dog for the Cadiz Police Department. Dogs 4 Warriors training takes up most of her time, and she can always use more volunteers and donations to help out with taking care of the dogs.
Dogs 4 Warriors is about to get even more hectic as an equine therapy program is in the works to "offer veterans the therapeutic benefits of developing a personal relationship with a Warrior Horse." Veterans will have the opportunity to care for and bond with a specific horse and spend time with other veterans who have a love for horses.
To learn more about Dogs 4 Warriors, read heartfelt testimonials about the program, and see more pictures go to www.dogs4warriors.org. Donations are accepted on the website. To contact Dogs 4 Warriors, use the website or call (740) 627-6867. There is also a Facebook page.
Warner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.