gmhTODAY 15 gmhToday July Aug 2017 - Page 35

might provoke a panic attack; wake them from nightmares; even help them regulate pain management by forcing them to take breaks rather than push through the pain. But perhaps the most important part, Cortani said, “The dogs stop them from isolating. They have to get the dog out, and engage with the public.” The Healing Power of Training Dogs As part of the 48-week training program contract, every client must commit to spend two hours out of the house, and doing more than just normal routines. They must also spend a minimum of two hours per week at the center, in group classes or individual sessions. The program is not just about training dogs, it’s about teaching veterans to heal. They also partner with therapists from a program called Dream Power Horsemanship, an equine therapy program, so a therapist is always on site in case a veteran is having a hard time. Likewise, clients can call the center almost 24 hours a day and find a helpful person on the other end willing to offer comfort, connection or resources. The center has become a safe place for clients, both currently enrolled as well as graduates, to hang out and feel included. “They’ll come hours before class just to talk,” Cortani said. Indeed, there were more than a handful of folks lingering with their dogs in the hour before class began. One such client was Esmat Abdul, a young Army veteran who served in Korea and Kuwait before retiring to become a full-time student. Abdul was born and raised in Taliban-terrorized Afghanistan, where he suffered trauma as young as the age of five. “I’m always on alert. I saw people die in front of me. I lost my biological dad, then my stepdad, and saw my mom get abused by the Taliban,” he said. His dog, a German Shepherd named Argot sat close to his leg, nudging Abdul when he grew emotional.. His family came to the U.S. as refugees, and he became a citizen in 2007. In 2011 he joined the Army. “That provoked some things,” he said with a deep sigh. His psychologist recommended he get a companion, which brought him to Operation Freedom Paws. Only a week into training, he was already feeling better. “I wake up and I want to come see him,” he said of his dog. “I go to stores and I’m thinking about what I need to buy for him to make him happy because he makes me so happy.” Rewarding Transformations Transformations are the most rewarding part of the work, Cortani said. “The dog helps to rebuild the connection to caring, compassion and love without judgment,” she explained. Through learning to communicate with the animals, veterans learn to reconnect with family members and friends. “Once communication starts flowing, it also allows for opening up, talking to therapists and letting go of some of those things you’ve been holding onto.” She shared a story of a couple, both graduates, who came in to introduce their baby boy to her. “[The wife said] if not for the program they probably wouldn’t be together or have a family together. What greater gift is there?” When the staff feels the client is ready, the dog goes home with its new owner, which can take weeks or months, depending. In the meantime the dogs live in the kennels on site. Taking home the dog can be a bit like taking a baby home from the hospital for many of these veterans. “It’s very scary,” Cortani acknowledged. “They want this, but they’re afraid of the responsibility. We work with them to show them that caring for the dog is going to help them care for themselves.” At the end of the 48 weeks, nearly a year later, owner and dog must go through a six-hour public access test out in the community. “Our reward is we get to see them grow and change,” Cortani said. Operation Freedom Paws fills a gap for veterans, who are often underserved in their mental health treatment. Statistics suggest that approximately 22 veterans take their own lives every day, and Cortani feels this number is actually lower than the reality. Having served her time, Cortani understands why. “When we raise our right hand to take the oath, it is up to and including your life. You’re writing a blank check. They can do with you what they want.” Operation Freedom Paws is completely funded by donations and grants, and Cortani said, “Every day is a struggle” to get more funds. It costs approximately $15,000 per dog team, per client, to run, which pays for veterinary costs kennel lodging and training costs. The service is completely free of charge to the veteran. They hold annual fundraisers to try and cover the costs for her staff, which includes her assistant, Janet Wenholz, five mentor trainers, and kennel staff. To offset some of the costs, she has opened the kennel to day care and boarding for dogs owned by civilians, and offers general obedience training for their dogs, as well. “The dog is the key and it unlocks the lock for a better tomorrow,” Cortani said. She is grateful to the communities of San Martin, Gilroy and Morgan Hill. “I feel so blessed to even be here and know that there are people out there that care. For the veterans, it means the world to them.” Operation Freedom Paws will host its Annual “Paws for Patriots” Dinner Gala, Saturday August 12, 5 pm, with special guest, actress Jane Lynch of “Glee” fame. GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN JULY/AUGUST 2017 gmhtoday.com 35 might provoke a panic attack; wake them from nightmares; even help them regulate pain management by forcing them to take breaks rather than push through the pain. But perhaps the most important part, Cortani said, “The dogs stop them from isolating. They have to get the dog out, and engage with the public.” which brought him to Operation Freedom Paws. Only a week into training, he was already feeling better. “I wake up and I want to come see him,” he said of his dog. “I go to stores and I’m thinking about what I need to buy for him to make him happy because he makes me so happy.” The Healing Power of Training Dogs Transformations are the most reward- ing part of the work, Cortani said. “The dog helps to rebuild the connection to caring, compassion and love without judgment,” she explained. Through learning to communicate with the animals, veterans learn to reconnect with family members and friends. “Once communication starts flowing, it also allows for opening up, talking to therapists and letting go of some of those things you’ve been holding onto.” She shared a story of a couple, both graduates, who came in to introduce their baby boy to her. “[The wife said] if not for the program they probably wouldn’t be together or have a family together. What greater gift is there?” When the staff feels the client is ready, the dog goes home with its new owner, which can take weeks or months, depending. In the meantime the dogs live in the kennels on site. Taking home the dog can be a bit like taking a baby home from the hospital for many of these veterans. “It’s very scary,” Cortani acknowledged. “They want this, but they’re afraid of the responsibility. We work with them to show them that caring for the dog is going to help them care for themselves.” At the end of the 48 weeks, nearly a year later, owner and dog must go through a six-hour public access test out in the community. “Our reward is we get to see them grow and change,” Cortani said. Operation Freedom Paws fills a gap for veterans, who are often under- served in their mental health treatment. 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