Service dog nonprofit helps veterans

A national nonprofit group that provides service dogs to military service members and veterans has opened a new training facility in Fairbanks. Paws for Purple Hearts involves service members and vets in the dog training process.

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A Paws For Purple Hearts service dog greets visitors during an open house at the group's new training center in south Fairbanks November 12th. (Dan Bross, KUAC - Fairbanks)
A Paws For Purple Hearts service dog greets visitors during an open house at the group’s new training center in south Fairbanks November 12th. (Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks)

The atmosphere is upbeat as people and dogs mix during an open house event at Paws For Purple Hearts new Fairbanks facility. The young dogs, labrador and golden retrievers, wearing blue vests, calmly interact with visitors amidst the distracting party atmosphere. They’re young and and still in training, but obviously special animals.

In Fairbanks for the open house, Paws For Purple Hearts national President and CEO Greg Sipple, emphasizes that his group’s service dog program is different and his dogs are “the most sedate, calming and mellow dogs that we could find.”

”A lot of places will try to have that dog keep the world away from the veteran,” Sipple said. “Our philosophy is help the veteran get through and integrate back into society. So we’ll have the dog come closer to comfort them at times when their anxiety is high- even when they’re sleeping. The dog can sense the dreams, the emotion and the cortisol being emitted, ad the dogs will comfort the veteran.”

Sipple, a former Navy pilot, also points to another unique aspect of the program: use of active duty service members  and veterans suffering a  range disabilities, including PTSD,  to help train the dogs.

”Right now the demand for service dogs is far out-stretching the capacity of every organization combined. So what we’re trying to do is make a force multiplier,” Sipple said. “By having the veterans come in, training with the dogs once or twice or three times, as many times as they really want to — something about that magical connection between a dog and a human being and their ability to read and understand our emotions is really what is the magical part of the organization.”

Fairbanks is one of five locations in the US where Paws For Purple Hearts operates, and the first to get a purpose-built training facility. With a large veteran population and three military installations, the interior Alaska location makes sense, but Sipple credited two local residents with bringing the organization to Fairbanks: Betsy Jacobs, the program coordinator for Paws for Purple Hearts and Nathan Colin, the director of Paws for Purple Hearts.

Jacobs and Colin, both longtime Fairbanks residents previously involved in therapy dog work, say they saw the need for service dogs.

”I would often be asked, ‘How do I get a service dog?'” Jacobs said. “I didn’t have an answer for them. There was no place in town where you could get one.”

So the couple got trained by service dog pioneer and Paws for Purple Hearts founder Bonnie Bergen in California.

”Once Betsy and I both went through her program, she seemed to think we were good candidates,” Colin said. “She asked us if we could open up a Paw for Purple Hearts here in Fairbanks.”

Since March Colin and Jacobs say the fledgling Fairbanks branch of Paws For Purple Hearts, has worked with 4 dogs and about 25 service members and veterans.

“Positive dog training — Susan Sampson has allowed us to use her facility free for the entire  time, March until now,” Jacobs said.

“Until we got our own facility now,” Colin said.

“So we’ve only been meeting twice a week, but now that we’ve got our own place, we’ll be able to expand our service immensely,” Jacobs said.

“And the neat thing snout our services – all our classes, all our events, everything for the servicemen and veterans – are free,” Colin said. “And if any of them want a dog, the dog is free.”

That’s a big deal as the couple said trained service dogs can cost as much as 75 thousand dollars.  Paws For Purple Hearts CEO Sipple said the organization is entirely funded by private donations and grants, noting that Alaskan people and businesses have been generous in helping the organization get started and he aspires to expand into Anchorage and Juneau.