A service dog can change the life of a struggling veteran. Obtaining one, however, can be a costly endeavor that takes years. For those who face problems with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidality, waiting could mean the difference between life and death. While that statement may seem like an exaggeration, it is one that David Proctor, the executive training director of Guardian Service Dogs, knows all too well to be true.
Proctor struggled with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury after serving in Iraq. As he worked toward recovery, he connected with a counselor who recommended he get a service dog.
“I spent some time looking into a service dog and at the time they were $25,000 to $35,000 and had a waitlist [of] three to five years,” says Proctor. That created a challenge for Proctor. First, the price was simply more than he could afford. Second, he did not have the time to wait, considering the service animal was meant to address the immediate challenges he was facing.
“I started learning about dogs and various training methods; I Interned with a number of different trainers,” says Proctor, noting that he was an AKC evaluator and trainer for a time.
Proctor eventually trained his own service dog and found it to be incredibly helpful. His new goal became helping other veterans facing the same challenges.
“If it wasn’t for my first service dog, I wouldn’t be alive. Now my mission is to help as many veterans as I can,” says Proctor.
Guardian Service Dogs is unique in that veteran and service dog train together — the dog is provided by the participant. This ensures that the bond between the participant, also referred to as a handler, is nurtured from the beginning and remains unbroken. While the organization does not have breed restrictions, each dog must be evaluated to ensure it meets the specific needs of the participant and will qualify as an ADA service animal. Dogs can be trained for a variety of tasks and Proctor also specializes in training dogs for early seizure detection. If the participant’s existing pet meets the targets of the evaluation, that pet can be trained as the individual’s service dog. If not, Guardian Service Dogs will set up an evaluation package to help them find a dog.
Training can take about 12-14 months, but it can take longer to train a dog to assist with certain disabilities. Training can cost $18,000-$24,000 and includes all expenses, like meals purchased during public trainings. The organization works to cover as much of the cost as possible through donations, sponsorships and fundraisers. Participants are allowed to self-fund their training if they are able. In an effort to prevent the same waitlist hurdles that he faced, Proctor signed up to participate in Give! to generate more awareness about the program.
Guardian Service Dogs welcomes funding from a variety of sources — like all nonprofits, more is always better. They are currently searching for a grant writer and more board members. They are also hoping to obtain an ADA-compliant, wheelchair-accessible vehicle to help handlers-in-training travel around during certain phases of the process.
Proctor hopes to continue supporting veterans and qualified service members well into the future. Having experienced the value of a service dog in his own recovery, he hopes to provide the same support to as many veterans in need as possible.
“Being able to give them back their lives is priceless,” says Proctor.