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Oceanside-based Freedom Dogs has trained dozens of labradors — such as this Freedom Dog in Training — to help veterans transition back into civilian life. Photo by Atsuko/courtesy Freedom Dogs
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Freedom Dogs will soon provide another veteran with a support animal

OCEANSIDE — Another U.S. veteran will soon have their life transformed thanks to the Oceanside-based charity Freedom Dogs. Just last month, the longtime nonprofit welcomed another service dog to its litter, which will be trained to serve a wounded veteran as he or she transitions back into civilian life.

Trainers with Freedom Dogs, which was created in 2006, last month assessed a new litter of Labrador puppies and selected one to undergo an intensive training that will ultimately serve the emotional and physical needs of a veteran.

Wendy Sabin-Lasker, the executive director of Freedom Dogs, said the chosen dogs are selected after being thoroughly examined by several “highly accredited” trainers and a Marine participant.

“It’s the work done together with the Marines, trainers and dogs that is invaluable to the healing process of each service member, regardless of whether the outcome is permanent placement,” Sabin-Lasker said. “Consider how truly special, smart and intuitive these dogs have to be — and how carefully they must be chosen.”

The dogs undergo roughly 2.5 years of training that costs about $50,000, Sabin-Lasker said. The service animals are then partnered with a veteran in the “recovery process” or made a “partner for life” to the veteran, Sabin-Lasker said.

“Freedom Dogs trains specialty dogs to work with multiple service members,” Sabin-Lasker said. “Recognizing that not every wounded warrior requires a permanently placed dog, and importantly, that not all military families are in a position to care for a service dog, Freedom Dogs are trained to work with, and adjust to the needs of several different Marines they may be working with — sometimes within the same day.”

Sabin-Lasker said dozens of dogs have been trained with the nonprofit over the years, changing the lives of, not only the veterans, but their families as well.

“Nearly half of the 1.6 million warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking benefits for disabilities,” Sabin-Lasker said. “Freedom Dogs strives mightily to reduce the impact of disabling conditions on the health, mood, social interaction, and employment of returning Marines.”

Beth Russell, a former critical care nurse, said she formed Freedom Dogs after observing how helpful the animals were in the rehabilitation process. Today, as the lead trainer for the nonprofit, Russell works to train the dogs to be helpful in all areas of a veteran’s life.

The dogs are taught certain behaviors such as leaning into the veteran when anxiety increases, providing a barrier between the veteran and someone else, nudging the veteran when someone is approaching, Russell said.

Other behaviors include turning lights on when nightmares occur, opening cupboards and doors and retrieving equipment.

These simple tasks can make a tremendous difference for veterans, particularly those facing from post-traumatic stress or other disorders, Russell said.

Russell, who has devoted her life to the nonprofit because both her parents served in World War II, said Freedom Dogs remains in “close contact” with all participants. She, as well as, other volunteers often receive gratitude from the veterans, making the work worthwhile, she said.

“It’s wonderful to see (veterans) thriving in their families and communities,” Russell said. “We share in their pride at having completed college courses or when they’ve graduated, when a new baby joins their own family, and in some cases when they’ve started their own business.”

“We hear ‘thank you’ from so many service members’ families,” Russell said. “Thank you for  giving me back my dad, my mom, our son, our daughter … That makes it all worth it — for all of us who do this work.”

Freedom Dogs is currently asking for donations to support its nonprofit, including donations for dog supplies.

For more information about Freedom Dogs, go to www.freedomdogs.org.

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