Homeless pets helping vets in Animal Friends program

Homeless dogs will be specially trained to meet the needs of wounded warriors in a new program, Pets for Vets Pittsburgh at Animal Friends.

The Ohio Township shelter chose this Memorial Day weekend to launch what is hoped to be a life-changing and even life-saving experience for animals, veterans and active military personnel.

On Saturday, hundreds of people and pets dressed in red, white and blue to march in North Park for the annual Animal Friends Bark in the Park fundraiser. This year, the event was subtitled “Memorial Day Walk and Patriotic Pup Parade” and included information about the new program.

Veterans will pay nothing for Pets for Vets. The majority of participating pets will be dogs, but a shelter cat already is “in the pipeline,” and rabbits may be beneficial for some people, officials say.

The cost to train one service or assistance dog can be $20,000 to $40,000 at some agencies. Animal Friends personnel expect their average training cost will be about $1,500 for four to eight weeks with a professional trainer who will live with the animal.

“These will not be service dogs,” said Joanne Moore, outreach director at Animal Friends. “These are companion animals trained to offer emotional support.”

They will be trained to levels well above the average pet but well below the level of dogs that assist people with severe disabilities, she said.

The Pets for Vets program is geared toward people with traumatic brain injury and/​or post-traumatic stress disorder. Debilitating night terrors, daytime panic attacks, depression and anxiety can be soothed by the constant companionship of dogs, a growing number of organizations are reporting.

“The dogs allow veterans to function better in their daily life,” said Bob Fragasso, a financial planner and Animal Friends board member who has made this new program his “passion” for the past year. He is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

“There are 22 veteran suicides a day and 4 million companion animals needlessly killed per year,” he said. “This program promises to make a difference in those numbers.”

The “22” figure is widely used but also is widely disputed. Some experts say the number is too high, while others say it is too low.

William and Susan Follansbee of O’Hara “know firsthand the alarming statistics about suicide in the military and the challenges that many veterans face as they transition from military duty to civilian life,” an Animal Friends news release says.

The couple established the Maj. Ben Follansbee Fund to honor their son, a highly decorated airborne Army Ranger and Green Beret who served multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Maj. Follansbee, 31, took his own life in December 2012.

His parents established the fund in partnership with Animal Friends to support all the Animal Friends for Veterans programs, which includes waiving adoption fees for any soldier or veteran who adopts a shelter pet.

Pets for Vets Pittsburgh is a chapter of the national Pets for Vets program (www.petsforvets.com), which has chapters all over the country. All pets come from shelters or rescue organizations.

Mr. Fragasso said the local program benefits from the experience and guidance of the national program, which provides guidelines for professional trainers and has approved Debi Meehan as the first trainer for Animal Friends.

It’s not clear yet how many soldiers, veterans and shelter animals will be teamed up locally. Mr. Fragasso hopes it will be “dozens and dozens” each year, but that will depend on how much money is donated. Go to www.thinkingoutsidethecage.org to make a donation.

Animal Friends is networking with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations to identify people who might benefit.

Vets and soldiers seeking to enter the program should contact Kellie Roberts, Pets for Vets chapter director, at kroberts@thinkingoutsidethecage.org. or 412-847-7097.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1953.