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Paws and Stripes trains dogs to help veterans

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In about six months, Jack Hill’s dog Cooper will be able to help pull him up the stairs, let him know when it’s time to take his migraine medication, pick up his keys from the floor and wake him from nightmares.

Cooper, a pit bull mix who is between 2 and 3 years old, was rescued from the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department’s West Side shelter three weeks ago.

Cooper is being trained to help his new owner, Navy veteran Jack Hill of Albuquerque, manage his PTSD and brain injury. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Cooper is being trained to help his new owner, Navy veteran Jack Hill of Albuquerque, manage his PTSD and brain injury. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Now he’s being trained to become a service dog for Hill, who has post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Navy from 1993 until 2007. His service included three deployments to Iraq, and serving in Bosnia and Haiti as well.

The organization training Cooper three times a week is the Rio Rancho-based Paws and Stripes, which opened in June 2010 and specializes in rescuing dogs between the ages of 2 and 4 from animal shelters.

The organization’s 27-year-old co-founder and CEO, Lindsey Stanek, is being honored as an outstanding young nonprofit professional, one of 10 people or organizations in the Albuquerque area to be recognized on National Philanthropy Day this month by the New Mexico Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Stanek started the organization after her husband, Jim Stanek, 33, returned in 2008 from three tours in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury. He was classified as 100 percent disabled.

Paws and Stripes, with an annual budget of more than $300,000, has already completed about 45 pairings, at a cost of about $2,500 to train each dog. It survives on donations, grant funding and sales of merchandise, including shirts, hats, bracelets and stickers, Stanek said.

It took Hill about a year to get to the top of the waiting list. Currently, there are about 150 veterans who are waiting to be matched with a dog, Stanek said.

The process of matching a dog to veteran is a careful one. The three dog experts working at Paws and Stripes first determine which dogs living in local shelters could be trained to be service dogs. Then, they point out trainable dogs to veterans, who pick the ones they feel most drawn to. The organization only matches dogs with veterans who have been diagnosed by the Veteran’s Administration with a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or both, Stanek said.

Hill, 39, who lives in the Northeast Heights with his wife and 5-year-old son, said he felt a special connection with Cooper when he saw him in the shelter.

Once a match is made, trainers teach the dogs to address the veteran’s specific needs. Cooper is in the process of learning to help Hill, who used to remain in a crouched position for seven hours on Navy ships. He now has difficulty bending, climbing stairs and walking more than 200 feet. Soon, Cooper will be able to press his paw against a handicapped-access door and open it for Hill, and let him know when he needs to take medication for migraines.

Dog and owner are also getting to know each other’s way of communicating, which is what they were doing in the office recently with the help of two dog trainers and Stanek.

“It’s always just really awesome to be able to see any of my veterans interact with a service dog, especially a new dog, and seeing their bond and how they communicate with each other,” she said.

Cooper lay on the floor at his new owner’s feet, while several trainers and Hill talked about, among other training issues, Cooper’s tendency to lick Hill.

“If you’re fine with the licking, if it’s just a couple of licks and that’s it, then we don’t need to fuss with it,” said Stephanie Barger, who directs the training of the dogs, a process that generally takes between six and eight months.

Yvette Magee, another trainer at the hourlong session Wednesday, told Hill that dogs learn from not only verbal cues, but nonverbal ones as well. “He’s getting more off your vibe than you doing anything,” she said.

The way that dogs know when a migraine is coming on is through chemical smells coming from the person about to have one, Stanek said.

Hill’s traumatic brain injury wasn’t immediately recognized. He was working as a welder and firefighter in the Navy and supervising about 50 Navy personnel on a ship in Norfolk, Va., in 2001 when a 70-pound piece of welding equipment was dropped on his head. “When we got hurt, we didn’t get medical (attention),” he said.

He went on working afterward, even through migraine headaches. It wasn’t diagnosed as a brain injury until years later. He also suffers nightmares from some of his experiences while in the Navy, he said.

Hill already has a service dog named Captain, who is so tuned in to Hill that he can wake him up when he is having a nightmare. Getting up in years, Captain will retire from his service duties once Cooper is trained; he’ll remain in the Hill household as a pet. “He has the heart, just not the legs,” to keep going in his service dog role, Hill said.

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