Some of these veterans might live in our own neighborhoods, attempting to cope with the transition from combat zones to shopping malls.
The Nevada Humane Society (NHS) and Mitch Schneider, a retired dog trainer and former dog services manager for Washoe County Animal Services, want to help those veterans integrate into civilian life.
But rather than doing so alone, a new program called G.I. Dogs will pair veterans with a carefully selected homeless pet.
“These people have some really horrible psychological experiences to deal with,” Schneider said. “As a (veteran), I really wanted to do something for those who went through what they did for our country. Here’s something we can do on a local level for them and make a difference in their lives. I know, in my life, having a pet around has helped me.”
The program is set to begin this spring or summer, and Schneider will spearhead the effort from the NHS’ office on Longley Lane in Reno. All pets will be selected from the thousands of animals the shelter receives each year.
Schneider was approached to start the program after he retired in December. As a Marine Corps veteran who served during the Vietnam era, Schneider said he gave the idea a lot of thought. After speaking to members of the Veterans Administration in Reno, and partnering with that organization, he decided to move ahead with the program.
“With their interest in working with us on the program, that inspired us to implement the program,” Schneider said. “It certainly is a big undertaking.”
Schneider figures the program needs $100,000 in funding to provide adequate pets, supplies and training for veterans. A charity poker tournament today sponsored by the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino will benefit G.I. Dogs and provide a boost in funds needed to get started. From there, the organization will depend on donations from the community and future fundraising events to continue operations.
Veterans will be able to consult with Schneider and choose from several, if not all, breeds at the shelter. Schneider will match owners and pets through a survey of personalities and needs. Pets will be trained specifically to the veteran’s needs using foster trainers. Some veterans will only need companions to help them integrate into day-to-day living, while others may need larger dogs for balance or other mobility challenges.
“It will be very individualized consulting with the veterans themselves and medical professionals,” Schneider said.
If the veteran prefers an animal simply for companionship, the shelter can provide them with a cat instead, he added.
The benefits of having a companion pet to help with stress and reintegrate into regular living situations can be varied.
“A lot can be gained in having a pet in life,” Schneider said. “(A person) takes less medications, recovers more quickly. The advantage of a service dog in public is the public tends to focus on the dog and not the disability. With the service dog, the person feels better about going out and they don’t feel as introverted. It’s a spin-off benefit.”
Companion pets are free to all military veterans and immediate families of active-duty and fallen military personnel. All pets are spayed or neutered, micro-chipped and vaccinated. Veterans will also receive free pet food and a starter kit of supplies.
The program organizers plan to launch a website where supporters can purchase T-shirts and sweatshirts, make donations and sign up to volunteer. Schneider estimates the program will officially begin in about three to six months.
To volunteer or donate to the program, visit www.nevadahumanesociety.org or call 856-2000.