Certified dog trainer Jennifer Green is not only an Army wife, but also the mother of a soldier. Seeing a need for service animals to help veterans, she founded Alpha Bravo Canine (ABC) in 2015.
“One of the reasons I founded Alpha Bravo Canine was because Philadelphia does not have a lot of resources for military veterans,” she said.
Service dogs can help veterans cope with PTSD by recognizing when the person starts to get anxious, noticing a certain twitch, movement, or even faster breathing, Green said. The dogs will then distract the veteran by using the “bump” technique, where the dog will bump their nose against the side of a person’s leg to distract them and disrupt the heightened anxiety.
Since 2015 ABC has graduated eight “teams,” what Green likes to call the paired dog and veteran. Puppies begin their training at 8-weeks-old and ABC volunteers work with them every day for up to two years.
Once puppies pass a final skills and service dog exam, they are matched with a veteran and continue to undergo a custom training specifically catered to that veteran’s needs.
“We view the dogs and the veterans that they go to as our family,” Green said. “We have lifetime support for our veterans, so we are looking for veterans who are ready for that lifelong relationship.”
But the process is not easy or quick. Raising these dogs for a life of service takes time, effort, and money.
“Training a service dog costs anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 per dog, which means we have a lot of fundraising to do,” Green said.
ABC is a smaller organization with less than 20 volunteers, primarily folks who foster puppies and help them train to become service dogs.
“A major part of the organization is the puppy raising team,” Green said.
Tracy Ruepp has been the puppy raising coordinator for ABC since 2017. She has been through the training herself and helps volunteers adapt to raising a service dog-in-training. She also hosts weekly training sessions for the puppy raisers and their pups.
“I had already spent time as a puppy raiser, and together Jen and I have been able to adapt the program over the last couple years,” Ruepp said. “We are in a really good spot now, and we are always trying to move the program forward.”
Ruepp is the first person volunteers interested in raising puppies talk to after applying, and she begins their training by breaking down the responsibilities of training a service dog.
“We provide everything financially for these puppy raisers such as supplies, food, and medical bills,” she said. “But what we require from them is a lot of time.”
Puppy raisers and their puppies attend weekly 90-minute training sessions with ABC for up to two years.
These trainings prepare the dogs for a final skills exam they have to pass before pairing with a veteran. The dogs have to retake that exam with their veteran twice a year for their first two years of service. After those two years, the dogs will retake the exam once every year for the rest of their working life.
These regular exams help make sure dogs are up to working standards and able to help their veteran even as they age, Green said.
“They need to retire as well.” she said. “After a certain age, we work in another service dog to become the working dog. We don’t want a dog working its whole life.”
ABC only trains one breed of dog, Labrador retrievers. All of the puppies come from the same breeder, Lynneville Labradors.
“They have been breeding dogs for a very long time, and they are breeding them for specific reasons,” Green said. “We are looking for very chilled-type dogs that also have a work ethic, because there is a lot of down time for these service dogs that work with veterans.”
Labrador retrievers are also highly motivated by food, so training them is easier than training some other breeds, Green said.
To prepare the dogs for the environments they will work in, ABC staff and volunteers will take them on field trips to places such as the Philadelphia Zoo. Here, the dogs have to stay alert in an environment with other animals and children running around.
They also take the dogs on monthly group trips to bowling alleys, shopping malls, and the Italian Market to see how the pups are progressing with their training.
“For a pet dog, they have to be proficient with their training in a few places such as at home, at the park, at the pet store, etc.,” Ruepp said. “But with a service dog, they have to be able to do that in hundreds and hundreds of different places.”
When in public, the service dogs are noticeable in their specialty vests. When the vest is on, these dogs are in work mode, their full attention is directed toward their veteran and they cannot eat, drink, or empty their bowels without a command from their master.
But they are not always on the job. Once the vest is off the dogs are encouraged to play, relax, and simply be a “regular dog,” Ruepp said.
However, one place an ABC volunteer will never take a service dog to during training is an open-public dog park.
“If one dog comes at one of our dogs it could scar them for life,” puppy raiser Betty Crist said. “We take them to fenced-in dog parks so they can get used to barking at the other dogs and being around them, but they are never allowed to interact physically with them.”
Crist has been a puppy raiser since September of 2019 and has raised two puppies with ABC, not including her husband’s service dog Cooper. Crist got involved with ABC after they paired her husband and Cooper.
The usual wait time for a service dog from ABC is around four years.
To manage the wait, ABC usually has two groups of dogs going through training at a time: a younger group of two or three dogs just starting their training and an older group of two or three dogs are nearing the end of their training.
“Our goal is to cut down the wait times and always have dogs available on the go, “ Green said
ABC pairs veterans and dogs based mostly on referrals, which come from local Vetern’s Affair Hospitals, as well as word-of-mouth from veterans who have gotten service dogs from ABC. But one of the biggest ways it advertises is with the help of one of its board members, Steve Morrison, the co-host of 93.3 WMMR’s Preston and Steve Show.
Morrison also helps with fundraising. Every year during August, 93.3 WMMR partners with White Dog Cafe to host ‘Dining Out for the Dogs’ at all three of White Dog’s locations. Dining for the Dogs is the biggest fundraiser of the year for ABC, and the radio station’s hosts dine with guests, host a raffle, and give away concert tickets.
“We have gotten a lot of different applications based just on the fundraiser and the information that WMMR puts out there,” Green said.
Currently, ABC is fundraising for a new, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant facility of its own. It currently operates out of a shared space that is not ADA-compliant, making it difficult for some veterans to participate.
Green’s vision is to name the new facility Echo’s Dog House in honor of their founding dog, Echo, who passed on June 6, 2019. The facility will help staff foster a sense of community between puppy raisers, volunteers, dogs, and veterans by offering a space for groups to come together more often, as well as to host other services for veterans, such as peer support groups.
The proposed new space will promote the sense of community and family that makes ABC such a special place for everyone involved. Still, watching the dogs finish training, pass their final exam, and move into their new home will likely remain an emotional experience for Green.
“I cry every single time,” she said.
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