Veteran Army Sgt. Christopher Maddeford was attached to the 18th Airborne Corps, a rapid deployable contingency response unit that was sent into combat to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Maddeford was excelling in the military police unit when he was deployed, but came home five years later a broken man, with severe back, hip, and shoulder injuries, the details of which he chose not to discuss, as it is too painful for him to re-tell.
“I can tell you, though, that I had a tough road back. With all my physical injuries, I eventually became addicted to my pain medication, and on top of that I definitely had some PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] that I was working through. I was a complete mess,” said Maddeford. “The pain meds made me numb to life, which is what I was going for. I was completely hopeless, a totally different person, a person so angry and depressed that my own family was afraid of me.”
After attending drug rehab clinics, Maddeford finally decided to seek help for his PTSD and enrolled himself in the VA’s Community Stabilization Program, where he was working with a recreational therapist. It was his therapist who noticed Maddeford was falling a lot and had trouble picking things up because of the hip and shoulder injuries he sustained, and then suggested that maybe a service dog could help. The therapist first introduced Maddeford to the NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) program.
“I was a little skeptical at first that a dog could really help me all that much, especially since I had never owned a dog. But I knew that it couldn’t hurt as I was already in such rough shape, I was open to trying it,” said Maddeford.
And with that small push from his therapist, Maddeford started down his path to emotional security and ultimately his own healing rescue.
Headquartered in Princeton, Mass., NEADS, a nonprofit organization, originally started in 1976 as a training facility for rescue dogs for the hearing impaired. Over the years, they increasingly received requests for dogs to assist with a range of disabilities and eventually expanded their service to include training service dogs for individuals who are physically disabled. The disabilities range from balance issues to wheelchair assistance to children with autism, partial paralysis, and even arthritis, to name a few. It wasn’t until 2006 that they were asked to provide assistance dogs for a whole new list of disabilities found uniquely in the American war veteran.
“One day in May of 2006, I got a call from the Physical and Occupational Therapy department from Walter Reed Army Medical Center [Washington, D.C.], asking if I could come do an in-service clinic for them and show them what training our dogs were already receiving,” explained Kathy Foreman, client coordinator for NEADS for the last 30 years.
“What we saw were a lot of bilateral amputees, and realized that our dogs were already trained for almost everything the vets were going to need, and that is when we knew we needed to expand our program to include the Canine for Combat Vets sector,” she said.
Foreman and her team returned to Walter Reed in August 2006 to interview several vets who had been referred for placement in the program, and by October 2006, NEADS had placed their first dog with a combat veteran.
Anyone can apply for a service dog, but it is only through the application and interview process that NEADS can determine if they are the correct agency that can indeed help the vet. As Maddeford can attest, the application process to get a dog requires you to fill out an extensive questionnaire about yourself and your lifestyle. “First, we have to know in detail who you are, what you do, where you go, what tasks you need the dog to do for you,” said Foreman.
After the lifestyle paperwork is submitted, there is a medical referral form required by their doctor, and then an in-person interview is conducted to complete the profile of the person applying for the dog.
“Since everyone’s injuries are unique, this interview process is crucial to finding the right match. Maybe they are in a wheelchair and we will need to teach the dog to retrieve it or they need help putting on a prosthetic or have a severe case of PTSD. It is only after this interview that we can create an exact profile and start finding the dog with the right personality to match our vet,” stated Foreman.
Maddeford was a little worried, since this was the first dog ever he would be welcoming into his life. “When I was there for my interview with Kathy and one of the dog trainers, I was taken upstairs to meet some of the dogs and shown different temperaments and sizes, and I was able to tell them my preferences right there on the spot. I definitely needed a calm, chill dog.”
For the service dogs, there is no breed bias, but NEADS leans more toward using breeds like labrador and golden retrievers, standard poodles, and smooth coated collies (which are generally donated by private breeders to the program), and using local shelter rescue dogs for the hearing dogs.
“We keep files on each of the dogs from the time we receive them into the puppy house at 8 weeks old. We are constantly monitoring their personalities as they grow and noting their strength and weaknesses,” said Erin Wylie, assistance dog trainer for two years at NEADS.
The trainers are looking specifically for dogs that have an urge to please, the ability to stay calm and restrain themselves from unnecessary barking, and a responsive demeanor.
So from 8 weeks old to roughly 12 weeks old, the puppies are housed at the puppy house and, with the help of endless volunteers, are walked, fed, played with, and receive their first socialization training with exposure to loud noises, traffic, and trips out in public. Then the puppies are taken to one of 13 local participating prisons within the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) and placed with a carefully chosen inmate for the next 12 to 15 months.
“At one point, the demand became so great that the wait list for a NEADS dog was averaging four years,” said Foreman, “The DOC approached us and proposed the partnership program with us around 1998. And because each dog needs foster parents that can be with them and train them for eight hours a day instead of leaving them at home in crates while they go to work, it became the perfect fit to have inmates take them, since they have the time to help … it couldn’t be more of a win-win as they say,” concluded Foreman. “The inmates are extremely proud when their dog goes to a combat vet; they are very patriotic.”
The Massachusetts DOC decision was inspired by a program out of Washington state called the Prison Pet Partnership Program, established in 1981, and has since spread across the United States.
Having the inmates care for the dog 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday, has drastically increased the placement time for dogs, but there is one more step to the equation before the dogs’ training is complete: “real-world socialization” training. As trainer Wylie explained, “Once a week a NEADS trainer holds a training class at the prison to check in and make sure the training is going smoothly. Then volunteer families who live around the prison come pick up their foster dog and take them out for the weekend, taking them into town in the car, stopping to get gas, going to the bank with them, taking them to the kids’ soccer games, and exposing them to a vacuum cleaner, the TV, a phone ringing,” said Wylie. “This is a crucial step in their training.”
The dogs then arrive back at the NEADS campus facility between 12 and 15 months of age and have their personalities and skills reassessed to match an awaiting referral.
“I was so lucky,” said Maddeford. “I only had to wait two months for my dog placement. I know other people that have had to wait four to six months.” The wait time is completely dependent on the timing of whether they have a dog who is ready to be placed that matches the personality and needs of the waiting veteran. A bad placement is detrimental to both the vet and the dog.
But for Maddeford, meeting his black lab, AJ, was literally a life-saving event.
“Since I’ve had my dog, AJ, my whole life has changed,” said Maddeford matter-of-factly. “This is the first time that I’ve been able to hold some sort of a job. I could never hold a job after I returned from the Army. But since I’ve had AJ, my whole world has improved.
“I had like a million questions, because I had never had a dog before and I wanted to make sure I had everything AJ might need. I must have called NEADS like a dozen times,” said Maddeford, “but they always fielded my calls patiently and always made me feel comfortable – super nice, really good people.”
When picking up their dogs, combat veterans receive a two-week intensive training at the NEADS campus, where they stay free of charge in a home where all the meals are cooked by the local chapter of the Blue Star Mothers, a nonprofit group of mothers who have or have had children honorably serving in the military.
“When I got out there, the Blue Star Mothers cooked me breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day that I was there. They even called ahead to find out what I liked to eat before I arrived. I felt like a rock star,” said Maddeford, “And man, was I thankful for their help, because the training was so intense that I wouldn’t have had the energy to make meals for myself.”
Maddeford first met AJ when he was around 18 months old. Since the arrival of AJ in his life, Maddeford has been able to come off a lot of his medications and has worked through many of his PTSD issues. “If I’m anxious, he’ll just come up and rub up against me until I calm down, I can just pat him and feel more safe and comfortable. I can’t describe what he does for me. The only people who really know how helpful they are are people like myself who have been traumatized and have gotten an amazing service dog from NEADS.
“From the get go, I knew it was going to help. But I had no idea AJ would help as much as he has. It took a good couple months for the dog to warm up to me and really trust me, to know I wasn’t going to put him in harm’s way,” said Maddeford, “But now this dog goes everywhere I go. He comes to work with me every day; he helps out a lot with the type of work I do. I take him around to all the wards I go to. That’s the thing: I had trouble going out and doing the things I normally used to do. And now I feel like a normal person again.”
For more information or to discuss your situation, please contact Kathy Foreman, client coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org. For donations or more information, visit NEADS.org.
This article was first published in The Year in Veterans Affairs and Military Medicine: 2010-2011 Edition.