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Working Like a Dog

Midshipman Ari Schiff raises funds so wounded veterans can benefit from a warm heart and a cold nose

Each year, America’s VetDogs sends five of its service dogs to active bases in Iraq, to strengthen morale and help soldiers deal with problems.

Twenty-one-year-old Ari Schiff knows the value of a dollar. In high school he earned 60,000 of them. Not for a new car or an expensive spring vacation.
    Schiff earned this small fortune so that America’s VetDogs could offer two assistance dogs to help disabled veterans acclimate to life at home.
    “I’ve grown up with dogs, and I’ve had this affinity for the military,” Schiff says. “So I thought it was a great way to bring the loves together.”

While still in high school, Ari Schiff, left, raised $60,000 for two VetDogs. Now, as a second-class midshipman,  he hopes to lure 400 entrants to the VetDogs 5K Run/Walk on April 3.

    Now balancing a full workload as a second-class midshipman in the U.S. Naval Academy, Schiff is taking a running start at his fundraising.
    He’s committed his limited spare time to organizing the VetDogs 5K Run/Walk April 3. He hopes that this year he’ll get 400 runners to help him unite one veteran with an assistance dog.

Championing a Cause

    Schiff found his cause on vacation.
    “On a rafting trip back in high school I met a captain in the Marine Corps who had been shot in the head,” Schiff says. Inspired by the Marine’s service and recovery, Schiff sought his opinion on giving back. “He told me that the government doesn’t fund service animals for vets, so I did some research and found VetDogs.”
    Next, Schiff learned how to champion a cause.
    “I don’t think they expected much from a teenager, maybe a couple hundred or a thousand dollars,” Schiff says.
    No wonder. The process was arduous and the teen’s fundraising method — going door to door — wasn’t getting him far.
    “I realized that the media was the way to get attention,” says Schiff, who started making calls to local papers. “I had two articles in the Chicago Tribune.”
    The newspaper knocked on more doors that Schiff could: $60,000 worth.
    That impressive sum wowed VetDog organizers and enabled them to train two assistance dogs, at the price of $30,000 per dog.
    Why that princely sum for a dog?
    Because these animals are trained as well as the soldiers they aid.

A VetDog’s Life

    In 2003, The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind recognized that soldiers returning from military service were in need of a special kind of therapy that the military did not commonly provide.
    “From the military’s perspective, assistance dogs are a relatively new rehabilitative tool, and they are trying to quantify the benefit so that they can justify the expense,” says VetDogs chief executive officer Wells B. Jones.
    The Guide Dog Foundation knew the value of a good dog. It founded America’s VetDogs, Jones says, “to improve the quality of life for those who have served our country.”
    Guide Dogs are both bred and trained for service.
    “The vast majority we use are bred to maximize the traits we need for service dogs,” Jones says. Most common breeds are Labradors, German shepherds, golden retrievers and golden-Labrador mixes. Standard poodles fill in for people with dog allergies.
    Pups begin their schooling at seven weeks, fostered to families who socialize them and teach basic obedience. At 14 weeks, the dogs go to boot camp. Back at the VetDog teaching campus in Smithtown, New York, they spend up to six months working with one of 15 trainers.
    Then it’s time to specialize. Nowadays, guiding the blind is one of many service specializations.
    “The overall term is assistance dogs,” Jones explains. “Under that you have guide dogs, service dogs and hearing dogs.”
    VetDogs’ service dogs specialize widely. Some are trained to alert their owners to oncoming seizures. Others use their acute sense of smell to indicate when diabetics’ blood sugar is low. Other dogs learn to help with balance. Another specialty is assisting people in wheelchairs by turning on lights, opening doors, retrieving items and answering phones. Another specialty is working with people who’ve lost limbs. If a patient’s needs change, VetDogs sends a trainer to their client’s home to re-train the dog.

A traumatic brain injury in Iraq left Marine Master Sergeant Mark Gwathmey, above, with seizures. His life is made easier by VetDog Larry, who can sense an oncoming seizure and alert Gwathmey in time. The three will be on hand April 3 to raise awareness of VetDogs.

    Some dogs train for active therapy duty.
    “We’ve trained dogs to work with the Army hospitals,” Jones says. “With arm prosthetics, the dog will do a tug of war — with a heavy or light pull at the command of the trainer — to help soldiers adjust to the new limb.”
    Each year, VetDogs sends five dogs to active bases in Iraq, to strengthen morale and help soldiers deal with problems.
    All this specialization costs money: $55,000 is the cost to breed, train and place each assistance dog.
    About 75 dogs each year are donated by VetDogs to the military or individual veterans. More dogs are needed.
    So are dogged fundraisers like Schiff.

Needed: You — and Your Dog — to Hit the Ground Running

    Schiff is behind in this year’s fundraising goal. But he believes his planned America’s VetDogs 5K will attract a crowd — and their money.
    “Five K is a good distance for competitive runners,” Schiff explains. “We also have a walk, so people who want to bring their dogs and kids can come.”
    Likely to increase the take are two special guests: Marine Master Sergeant Mark Gwathmey and service dog Larry. A traumatic brain injury in Iraq left Gwathmey with seizures. His life is made easier by Larry, who can sense an oncoming seizure and alert Gwathmey in time.
    Schiff’s goal is to host 400 runners. So once again, he’s asked the help of newspapers. Thus, you’re reading this story. And, we hope, running or walking for his cause.

America’s VetDogs 5K Run/Walk: Sunday, April 3. 7am registration; 8am race at Quiet Waters Park, Annapolis: $20 veterans and active military; $25 w/rsvp; $30 day of: http://www.active.com/running/annapolis-md/1st-annual-americas-vetdogs-5k-runwalk-2011.
America’s VetDogs: www.vetdogs.org.