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Raising Puppies for Veterans

Veterans Moving Forward pairs disabled U.S. vets with therapy dogs.

Veterans Moving Forward Inc. puppy-training Coordinator Michele Khol with four of her Guiding Eyes for the Blind fostered dogs.

Veterans Moving Forward Inc. puppy-training Coordinator Michele Khol with four of her Guiding Eyes for the Blind fostered dogs. Photo by Donna Manz.

“I’ve seen through Guiding Eyes [for the Blind] the difference dogs make in people’s lives.”

-- Michele Khol of Oakton

Wanted: supporter of U.S. veterans, likes to be licked and take long walks, looking for a committed relationship. Reply to Michele Khol, puppy-raiser training coordinator for Vets Moving Forward, Inc. [VMF].

“I’ve seen through Guiding Eyes [for the Blind] the difference dogs make in people’s lives,” said Khol, of Oakton. “Not just the blind but people suffering from other conditions, as well.” Khol and her family dedicated 11 years with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, raising multiple puppies who went on to become heroes. Last summer, Khol, a working nurse, was ready to try something new. Her dad and husband were military and the Khol’s son Curtis is a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy.

In VMF, Khol said she found a way to “marry” her military background with her love of dogs. She wanted to help veterans returning from combat zones.

“We have more than enough puppies,” said Khol, adding that breeders “donate” puppies to the program. “What we need are puppy-raisers. That’s what we’re looking for now.”

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Puppy-raisers Heidi Lesinski with Stormin’ Norman and Giselle Sundwall with Neil [Armstrong].

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, several nonprofits have been established that recognize the therapeutic value of pets for disabled veterans suffering from PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] or physical disabilities. Some of these focus on pairing dogs or cats, primarily, rescued from animal shelters, with vets suffering from PTSD. Other veterans-support groups accept dogs, gratis, bred for therapy services. Veterans Moving Forward, Inc. is one of the latter. Before the dogs are adopted by veterans, however, they are taken in by foster “parents” as puppies and raised in a family atmosphere.

VMF, founded by retired Naval Commander Karen D. Jeffries three years ago, provides comfort dogs, therapy dogs, facility dogs and assistance dogs to eligible veterans.

Jeffries does not reveal her inspiration for VMF or her own disability, saying only that it is “illegal” to ask her that. She does acknowledge, however, she has witnessed first-hand the therapeutic miracles of the dog-veteran relationship.

Puppy-raisers foster an 8 to 10-week-old puppy for 18 months, housebreaking the dog, socializing him, caring for him and loving him. It is, Khol said, a “major commitment.”

Khol herself knows the commitment puppy-raising takes. She works two nights a week as a hospital nurse, tending to her pup during the day. Her husband has pup night-duty. How do other people do it? “Basically, people who currently have dogs in our program take their dogs to work with them,” Khol said. The employer agrees to partner with the puppy-raiser.

“It’s a unique opportunity for businesses without them having to make a financial commitment,” said Khol. “It’s a way to show support for our veterans and our community by allowing a disciplined dog to be present in their workplace.”

VMF is looking for companies, as well as individuals, to serve as puppy-raisers to make the program work most effectively. “Needless to say, the goodwill a business earns cannot be over-estimated.”

Khol notes that there are quite a few corporate donors from the Tysons area. Trax recently donated $25,000 to VMF.

VMF IS YOUNG ENOUGH that it can think outside the box to create solutions to challenges, Khol said.

“Say you can take your puppy to work but you live somewhere that does not allow pets. Someone else may be able to keep pets but cannot bring them to work. Perhaps, the two people can partner so that one has the dog during the workday, the other at night.”

Khol said VMF will work with people who are willing to make the time and duration commitment.

“The people who participate are provided with the tools to be successful.”

VMF dogs are trained to the standards of the Delta Society and Khol manages the assistance dogs in training program.

Everyone with VMF is a volunteer, including the puppy-raisers. There is no financial compensation, just the compensation of knowing you’ve helped. “You are doing this for the love of service and making a difference in a veteran’s life,” said Khol.

The puppy-raisers accept that, someday, the dog they grew to love will leave them. “He’s going to be a service dog, helping veterans,” said Giselle Sundwall of Annandale. “We’re honored to be part of the program.”

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO RAISE A VMF PUPPY or would like to learn more about the program and its services, go to www.vetsfwd.org or e-mail Michele Khol at kholcm@verizon.net.