The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged us all to adapt, adopt and re-invent ourselves in ways most of us never imagined. Throughout the crisis, one San Diego non-profit, Freedom Dogs, sought and found new ways to serve wounded military heroes and the steadfast dogs that assist them.
For more than 14 years, Freedom Dogs has been speeding the recovery and enhancing the lives of wounded service members suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury. Working closely with the healthcare staff of the Wounded Warrior- West Battalion at Camp Pendleton, the organization had only recently begun to serve program participants at its new Oceanside facility when the Covid-19 pandemic settled in.
With restrictions on work and travel, Freedom Dogs was propelled into unknown territory; how can a “hands-on” specialty-service dog organization effectively train with its participants via Zoom? How will a new puppy-recruit, begin the long road to attaining specialty service dog skills without the ability to learn from early on? Importantly, will the training support group for the Marine-Dog Partner for Life teams be able to stay connected during this stressful time?
The answer was a resounding “”Oorah!” heard far and wide. With Freedom Dogs’ founder and Lead Trainer Meribeth (Beth) Russell at the helm, the dedicated group of volunteer trainers adapted to the programs local and long-distance needs in a time of need. The Labrador Retrievers trained, the new puppies were socialized, and importantly, the organization’s close-knit team stayed connected and grew closer to their Partner for Life teams around the country.
Using Zoom to hold virtual training classes and following safe guidelines for working together at the training center, the group discovered an added benefit to an otherwise daunting situation; Marine/dog teams that are scattered across the nation are now able to join together for training classes. The long-distance sessions allow the trainers the ability to work on any issues the Marine teams may be encountering as there is a wealth of knowledge and collective wisdom within this group of very special trainers and dogs.
As for new pup, Jackson’s stifled schooling, necessity is once again, the mother of invention. New Freedom Dogs puppies are generally enrolled in a “puppy kindergarten” class to help them learn to train around unfamiliar dogs/breeds and people. Due to Covid-19, Jackson has been unable to join a class. So Freedom Dog trainers set up a puppy class of their own. Trainers brought their personal dogs of varying breeds to the training center and held small classes of 3 – 4 dogs and trainers to work and train with the new puppy. Additional training for Jackson is done in the back of the car while sitting in parking lots watching people, dogs and others pass by.
The volunteer trainers and dogs are ever-more dedicated to their mission of assisting the healing of our wounded service members during this difficult time.
Thinking ahead, Freedom Dogs, is continuing to make plans for several new programs, including an enhanced puppy program and a travel program. When America travels again, Freedom Dogs will be there to help the wounded service members and their four legged “battle buddies” to make their way again through the maze of transportation stressors.
If you would like to know more about volunteering and other ways to support Freedom Dogs, please visit www.freedomdogs.org.