Trained to do three foundational tasks — retrieving, pushing, and tugging, America's VetDogs service dogs help disabled veterans. Learn how.
Kent Phyfe’s body is a registry of damage. One traumatic brain injury, seven broken bones in his legs, three vertebrae crushed beyond repair, seven heart surgeries, and one condition that causes him to faint without warning.
Jumping out of planes for 15 years will do that to a body.
In 1981, Phyfe began his military career as a member of the elite 82nd Airborne Infantry Division. After parachuting his way into combat zones in Grenada and Panama, he switched to the U.S. Army Special Forces, serving in Japan and Korea.
In 1996, medical issues forced him to take an early retirement at age 32.
After spending 300 days a year circumventing the globe on missions, Phyfe became a virtual recluse. His damaged body and fainting spells kept him cloistered in his home in Brooklyn, Conn.
“I was locked in the house,” he recalls. “I was suicidal at the time. Life was not a happy place.”
About seven years ago, his doctor at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recommended that he get a service dog. Though dogs are often thought of as four-legged guides for the blind, they also assist people with physical and emotional disabilities. “They can help you contact the doctor, they can help with balance and getting up if you fall,” Phyfe says. “[I thought I could] get some freedom back, hopefully.”
He started looking into service dog organizations near his home. All of them either wanted him to pay for the dog outright, or fundraise upwards of $5,000 to cover the costs. “I’m locked in the house and I can’t drive myself,” he says. “How am I supposed to raise funds when I can’t get out of the house? I became even more despondent.”
Phyfe had almost given up, when he came across America’s VetDogs, an organization based in Smithtown, N.Y., that pairs active duty service members and veterans with service dogs. He talked to a representative, who told him he qualified for a dog — at no cost to him. “I was like, ‘You’re kidding me.’” Nine months later, he was introduced to Iris.
Service dog school
The main liaison between disabled vets like Phyfe and their service dogs is himself a veteran. Ken Kirsch, America’s VetDogs’ director of service dog training, served six years overseas as a military patrol dog handler. After leaving the military in 1989, he oversaw training for two service dog organizations — Paws With a Cause and Canine Companions for Independence. He joined America’s VetDogs just over four years ago. Since then he’s been training service, hearing, guide, and PTSD dogs for veterans from World War II through Afghanistan.
The organization breeds its own dogs, which are a mix of Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Lab/Golden Retriever crosses — breeds that were carefully chosen for their traits. “You have the stoicism and the physicality of the Lab, and the sensitivity and gentleness of the Golden,” Kirsch says.
The dogs enter training at eight weeks old, first learning to socialize by spending time with inmates at nearby prisons. At 15 months, they’re paired up with professional trainers to learn all the commands they’ll need to work with veterans.
“Once the dogs are ready, we have classes where we bring the veterans here for two weeks,” Kirsch says. “From 6:45 in the morning to 10 at night for 14 days… we teach them how to play with the dogs, feed the dogs, groom the dogs — everything they’ll need to do when they go home.”
Kent and Iris
Nine months after Kent Phyfe’s first call to America’s VetDogs, he traveled to Smithtown, N.Y., to meet his new partner — a black Lab named Iris.
Service dogs like Iris are trained to do three foundational tasks — retrieving, pushing, and tugging, Kirsch says. Using those three principals, the dogs can perform 177 different tasks — everything from pulling a wheelchair to taking clothes out of a dryer and opening the refrigerator to retrieve a bottle of insulin.
Often what the training doesn’t cover, the dog’s instinct will pick up on. “The fifth night I was there, I started dozing off. All of a sudden, I felt Iris licking my face,” Phyfe says. “I was having an event. She caught it.”
Service dogs are also trained to assist with emotional trauma — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety that veterans like Phyfe often bear. Dogs help them re-engage with society.
Iris enabled Phyfe to regain his independence and sense of purpose. “When I got the dog, all of a sudden I’m a viable person again,” Phyfe says. “She got me out in the community and gave me a mission.”
Phyfe’s current service dog is a yellow Lab named Mike, who brings him his clothes in the morning, picks up items off the floor, and presses buttons to open handicap-accessible doors. If Phyfe has a seizure, Mike presses a GPS-enabled 911 button to summon emergency help. And if he gets anxious, Mike puts his head on his lap to calm him.
Phyfe and Mike travel around the country, spreading the word about service dogs to other veterans. “VetDogs allowed me to talk to people like this,” he says.
Last year, Kirsch’s trainers paired about 65 service dogs and veterans, with life-changing outcomes. “I’ve seen families come back together,” he says. “They go to the store. They’ll go to their kids’ soccer games. They re-engage back into society.”
Kirsch trains his dogs to the very highest standards — even exceeding those set by the industry’s main accreditation organization, Assistance Dogs International. He says the results are worth the extra time and effort his trainers put in. “I think the veterans deserve the best,” he says. “They’ve paid the price for this dog in their service to the country. To me it’s very important that they receive the best dogs, the best quality.”
September 18, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN