Healing the psychological wounds of war with a wagging tail
Jason, a veteran and volunteer, spends some quality time with Loftus, a Tails of Valor service dog in training.
Anyone who’s owned a pet can agree that animals have a soothing, supporting, and healing impact on a person’s life. The organization Tails of Valor—which trains rescue pups to be service animals for war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or physical disabilities—lives and breathes this notion.
The group’s humble beginnings were set in motion four years ago when Heather Lloyd, Executive Director and Founder, befriended a homeless veteran while on vacation in Maryland. Now, Tails of Valor has seven key supporters on its board of directors and countless more involved as staff, volunteers, sponsors, and puppy raisers and sitters.
“We like to say we are saving two lives–the dog and the veteran.”
To date, nine puppies have graduated through the program and seven more are actively enrolled. Two additional puppies are expected to join later this month. Each Tails of Valor puppy carries a proud moniker paying tribute to a fallen vet, and most are welcomed into the program from local animal rescues.
“We really want to rescue our pups, to give them a chance at a good life,” says Jana Spess, Program Administrator for Tails of Valor. “We like to say we are saving two lives—the dog and the veteran. We are always looking to build a relationship with a shelter or rescue for future dogs, and we pay all adoption fees.”
Spess says the puppies are typically 8 to 10 weeks when the group acquires them, and they are spayed or neutered and up-to-date on puppy shots. The pups begin their training between 12 and 13 weeks of age.
Tails of Valor looks for dogs that are confident in their own skin without being bullies. “We do a small amount of testing when picking out the pups we want for our program,” says Spess, noting that lab mixes are often preferred for their loyalty and retrieving ability. “They need to be able to stand alone from their pack, be alert and responsive when called, submit to being cradled and scruffed, and be healthy overall.”
The Tails of Valor Canine Connections Training Program typically runs 14 to 20 months, and in that time, dogs learn 40 commands or more and have at least 100 exposures. Dogs are trained and get accustomed to a variety of people, sights, and sounds at the group’s training facility, as well as offsite at the Coatesville VA Medical Center and Haven House in Allentown. Tails of Valor is also proud to be a pilot program for Animal Assisted Therapy at the Coatesville VA.
“Each dog must have at least three specific tasks they perform for their veteran, which can be anything from bracing and blocking to turning on light switches to nightmare interruption,” Spess explains.
Veterans and their dogs meet with a trainer once per year to re-certify. At each annual recertification, Tails of Valor supplies food for the life of the dog through vouchers from the sponsor VeRUS pet foods.
“There is no monetary cost to the Veteran, just the commitment of time and dedication to be part of the program—and a love for dogs,” Spess says. “Our mission is to provide holistic, non-medicinal rehabilitation therapies to improve veterans’ quality of life. We are always looking for more pups and volunteers. The more pups we have, the more veterans we can help.”
To be considered for a service dog, veterans must meet 18 criteria set forth in the Tails of Valor application. Veterans can apply for a service dog on the website or by calling 267.733.7294 to receive copy of the application. For more information, visit tailsofvalor.org or facebook.com/Tails.of.Valor.
How to Get Involved
If this story has touched your heart, you’ll find five wonderful ways you can get involved or show support:
Donate– You can make a one-time or monthly tax-deductible donation to Tails of Valor Paws of Honor, Inc., through PayPal directly from the Tails of Valor website.
Volunteer– Team up as a committee volunteer, community events educator, or a dog attendant. You can share your time in the office or at Tails of Valor events.
Fundraise– Volunteer your time and efforts for an existing fundraiser, or reach out if you’d like to run your own.
Tails of Valor operates on private funding and donations.
Puppy Raise or Puppy Sit– If you live in the Lehigh Valley or Bucks County, you can provide a loving home or backup care for a puppy while they complete their training. All costs of raising the puppy are covered by Tails of Valor.
Sponsor– Different tiers of service dog sponsorship are available, including a $5,000 donation that allows you to choose the name of a dog in honor of a fallen veteran. Sponsors also get to be involved in key moments, like the dog’s graduation, and can see the dog any time they like.