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Wilmington-based Canines for Service pairs rescue dogs with veterans

Posted September 18, 2020 4:30 a.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2020 6:00 a.m. EDT

— For the staff and volunteers at Canines for Service, helping veterans and homeless dogs is the best of both worlds.

The North Carolina-based nonprofit is run by a small team, but their reach is vast. From their training facility in Wilmington, dog trainers pair rescue dogs with veterans suffering from physical disabilities or mental disorders like PTSD. The dogs are pulled from shelters and complete an intensive months-long training program to become certified service animals that can comfort veterans and assist them with tasks like unlocking doors and opening refrigerators.

"Our dogs come from rescues and shelters," said Susanne Delgrosso, a longtime volunteer and board member. "So we get to do so many great things, because we're not only rescuing dogs, but we get to serve our veterans."

Canines for Service

Delgrosso, who also works full time as a director in a senior community, has many veterans in her life. Her nephew, who joined the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lost his leg in an IED accident, and her son-in-law was injured in military training right after high school.

"I'm pretty much surrounded by that veteran story and that love for our veterans," said Delgrosso, who first heard about Canines for Service through friends who were volunteering there as dogwalkers.

According to Delgrosso, the stories veterans and their families tell after returning home from war can be terrifying, like a retired Marine suffering from PTSD who woke up agitated in the middle of the night and could only be soothed by his service animal.

"The dog is trained to sense when his Marine is going into that moment, and the dog does what's called 'snuggle,'" Delgrosso explained. "He gets close and reminds him, 'Here's where you are -- touch me, hug me.' It brings tears to your eyes."

In its 24 years, Canines for Service has placed more than 100 service dogs with veterans at no cost to their families. Canines for Service often travels out-of-state to find rescue dogs and has helped veterans as far away as California.

Before COVID-19, veterans would travel to Wilmington to meet their service dog. Now, during the pandemic, dogs and trainers go to veterans and work with them in their own homes to practice commands and make that special introduction.

Canines for Service

"It's worked out even better because the veteran can get used to the dog in his or her own home where everything is normal," Delgrosso said.

Canines for Service is always actively looking for rescue dogs, because there's always a need. Currently, 13 dogs are in training at the Wilmington facility, and trainers are working to find more to bring to the state.

Delgrasso said, during COVID-19, more families have been adopting pets from shelters. While that's great, it means Canines for Service trainers have a smaller selection of dogs to choose from.

Canines for Service

"We really want to get the word out that we will travel to get the right dogs," Delgrosso said.

When a Canines for Service trainer goes on a "freedom ride" to pick up a rescue dog and bring it back to Wilmington to serve a new purpose, it's exciting, Delgrosso said. What's even better is the moment the dog is united with its new family.

"That moment when we hand over this beautiful dog to the veteran and their family .. when you see this veteran who has their life back and their family has their lives back," Delgrosso said. "Hearing their stories is so amazing."

Delgrosso said it can take between 8 and 14 months to train a service dog. At the training center, which even features fake airline seats to teach dogs to ride on airplanes, dogs for veterans with PTSD learn to watch for emotional triggers, while dogs for disabled veterans are taught to retrieve items and open doors and appliances.

The entire organization relies on a team of six or seven paid staff members, a board of directors and a host of volunteers to stay afloat. Since veterans are gifted the dogs for free, Canines for Service depends on grants and fundraising to pay for dog training, medical care, food and other supplies.

Canines for Service is one of only two Assistance Dogs International (ADI) accredited service organizations in North Carolina, a group that promotes the standard of excellence in certified dog training.

Delgrasso said being a part of the organization gives her a purpose.

"Their lives have changed completely, not just the veteran, but for the families," Delgrosso said. "Their lives are so much better now. They get their lives back."

How to help

Especially during COVID-19, Canines for Service is looking for support. People can help by getting the word out -- to veterans and animal shelters -- and visit their website to learn more about volunteering or donating.

Ed Kenney, an Apex resident and veteran who has partnered with Canines for Service, has committed to completing 26 triathlons in 52 weeks to raise money for the cause. He just completed his 20th race.

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