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Four years ago, Ari Schiff, a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, started the Annapolis 5K Run and Dog Walk in support of America’s VetDogs — and today it’s still going strong. America’s VetDogs is a nonprofit organization that provides free guide and service dogs to disabled veterans of all eras and to active-duty personnel. It also provides physical and occupational therapy dogs for Veterans Affairs and military hospitals, as well as combat stress control dogs to be deployed overseas. More than 450 participants, many with their canines in tow, came out to support the growing nonprofit, raising nearly $50,000.
America’s VetDogs began in 2003 as a program of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. The dogs perform a range of highly specialized tasks — guiding the blind or vision impaired, providing balance for veterans with head injuries or missing limbs, nightmare interruption and PTSD therapy, seizure alerting and more.
Though some dogs in the program are rescues, the majority are black and yellow Labradors specifically bred for qualities that allow them to perform the special jobs they do. When service dogs enter the program as puppies, they are trained by inmates at correctional facilities in Connecticut, Maryland or Massachusetts. The inmates become 24-hours-a-day trainers with weekly guidance from VetDogs' training specialists. For about a year, the pups in the program follow a service dog curriculum, which means inmates teach them to do tasks such as turn on lights, open doors and retrieve dropped items. On weekends, the pups live with "weekend raisers” to get socialization experiences they can’t get in prison, such as riding in cars, being around other animals or going to restaurants. After the dogs' training is complete, veterans then get about two weeks of training with their new helpers on campus with VetDogs.
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