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Non-profit rescues, trains shelter dogs for wounded Servicemembers

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There's something to be said about the relationship between man and dog. For thousands of years, dogs have served as our sentries, our assistants and our faithful friends. They love us no matter what we look like, act like or feel like. They are our pets, our companions and our confidants.

But for injured and ill Servicemembers, dogs can be much more. For a Servicemember suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, a dog can, quite literally, mean the difference between life and death.

Likewise, for lost and abandoned dogs living in shelters, finding someone to give them a second chance can mean the difference between life and death as well.

Shelter to Soldier (STS), a 501 c (3) organization based in San Diego, is bringing the two together. Founder Graham Bloems selects and trains shelter dogs and pairs them, at no charge, with wounded Servicemembers.

"You take a broken warrior and a broken animal, and they enrich each other," said Marine Corps Maj. Brian Dennis, who rescued his dog, Nubs, from Iraq several years ago. The story was made famous in Dennis' 2009 book "Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle."

Bloem, who trained Nubs following his rescue, was inspired to help other Servicemembers. An Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer with more than 12 years of experience in all levels of obedience and therapy training, Bloem saw the need firsthand when he met Servicemembers applying for service dogs though his company, Specialty Dog Training.

Though the Servicemembers truly needed the dog, they didn't have the money to pay for one.  

A fully trained service dog can cost up to $20,000, and "(Servicemembers) don't have that kind of money at their disposal," Bloem said. "I'm not the kind of person that forgets those moments. That they couldn't pay really bothered me."

Inspired by Nubs and Dennis, a fighter pilot now stationed at U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., and using his connections in the industry, Bloem developed STS in August 2012.

"It takes the full financial burden off the Servicemember, and minimizes the cost by tens of thousands of dollars," he said, adding, "It's only right that if you have a talent that you give back. That's what this is all about."

Bloem selects dogs from shelters in the San Diego County area. He looks for two personality types - high energy dogs who want to work and "mellow, social couch potatoes who are emotionally robust," he said.

There are no breed restrictions, but the dog must be less than four years old.
"I just pick good dogs," he said. "The heart of the dog is what I look at."  

Selected dogs first undergo months of evaluation and basic training. Once a dog is matched with a potential Servicemember, the training is tailored to that Servicemember's situation.

"We're creating a Soldier of a dog for a Soldier," Bloem said. "Once you know who they're going to and the job they'll have, we spend three to five months finishing training and fine-tuning them."

The potential handlers, all of whom first undergo a rigorous screening and selection process, must undergo training as well. Both get refresher training after placement.

Most of the dogs at STS are trained to tackle emotional issues like PTSD, which can be marked by symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, anxiety, nightmares and depression.

"The dog gets you off your butt (and) out of the house to the park or wherever," Bloem said. "We train them to respectfully bother their handler. They can't ignore it. It's consistent and insistent."

Having the dog forces the Servicemember back into the world. However, "the dog's got your back," Bloem said. He is there to offer an extra set of eyes and ears so Servicemembers with PTSD can sleep better, build confidence and slowly heal.

"It's endless what these dogs can do on an emotional level," he said. "(They) don't judge you. They don't care. They are by your side through thick and thin and love you no matter what."

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