Retrieving Freedom, Inc., pairs those with disabilities
and veterans with canine friends for life
Story by casey Hilder
Vietnam Veteran Don Neal was in his late 50s when he began to experience the symptoms of late-onset PTSD.
“I came home with basically no issues, so I thought,” says Neal. “”The way it was explained to me by my psychiatrist was this: I had all of those monsters and bad thoughts locked away for years and now the locks have started to rust.”
Neal found solace from his disturbing thoughts in an unlikely place: the furry embrace of a two-year-old a Labrador Retriever named Storm. That’s the idea behind Senatobia-based Retrieving Freedom, Inc., an organization that works to pair veterans and the disabled with service dogs. Charles Dwyer, co-president and founder of Retrieving Freedom, was inspired by the Tower of Hope, an organization founded in the aftermath of 9/11 that funds training for service dogs to be assigned to wounded veterans.
“I was an amateur dog trainer that competed in hunt test competitions,” he says. “So I was already very passionate about dogs and seeing how much they help out with our returning veterans.”
The actions expected of a service dog are a bit different from that of a bird dog, but Dwyer found the training process remarkably similar.
“It’s cool to train a dog to win a ribbon or retrieve a bird, but it’s even cooler to train a dog to help get someone through the day and possibly prevent them from committing suicide,” says Dwyer. “I train them the same way for the most part, but it’s a bit more up close and personal.”
Dwyer is well aware of the grim statistics associated with veteran suicide, citing 22 self-inflicted deaths a day within the veteran community, or roughly one every 65 minutes.
The dogs trained by Retrieving Freedom are more than simple house pets, serving as psychological anchors and social bridges for those suffering from a variety of ailments including PTSD and autism.
“Especially for those with autism, the dogs can be a conversation starter for those who often have trouble communicating,” says Dwyer. “In a way, the dog becomes the intermediary. And also, they become the cool kid with the dog.”
These dogs are, for the most part, of the Labrador and Golden Retriever persuasion, for a few reasons. They’re naturally intelligent, as well as accepted in public ,and people don’t often shy away from or get nervous around those particular breeds. In addition to full public access, dogs from Retrieving Freedom are trained to perform three crucial functions to mitigate an individual’s disability: they can open and close doors, push and pull wheelchairs, and, of course, retrieve objects.
“We don’t want the dog to be an enabler, but there are certain situations where the dog can be a big help for everyday problems,” Dwyer says. “Sometimes it’s as easy as covering personal space for an individual.”
In addition to easing the day-to-day burdens of their human companion, many of the dogs trained by Retrieving Freedom are allowed to cut loose and participate in bird hunts alongside their owners, something that many of the disabled recipients haven’t had a chance to do since injury.
“These dogs are training to provide a service for their owner,” says Dwyer. “For many of these guys, helping hunt is a service.”
Retrieving Freedom dogs are specially bred and raised from eight weeks of age to perform their assigned duties. The raw cost of training a service dog for Retrieving Freedom is more than $21,000, though veteran recipients aren’t charged a dime. For Dwyer, much of this is cost offset through fundraising efforts, grants, private donations and corporate sponsorship.