Everyone knows the saying “man’s best friend” is about the connection between owners and their dogs.
For veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, that connection can be a lifeline to adjusting to the civilian world and providing help with everyday tasks.
Soldier’s Best Friend is a nonprofit organization in Peoria that pairs veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury with service or therapeutic companion dogs at no cost.
The organization received a donation of about $3,000 in supplies from the Phoenix law firm Gust Rosenfeld, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary by giving back to local organizations. With the theme of “giving 100,” the company donated 120 backpacks, 102 collapsible browns, 100 bags of treats and 100 collars to Soldier’s Best Friend — essentially helping 100 veteran and dog teams receive help at no cost.
“We tried to spread out what we wanted to do (for donations), and we liked Soldier’s Best Friend because it helped both veterans and the animal community,” said Matt Faunkhauser, marketing director at Gust Rosenfeld.
“In talking with Soldier’s Best Friend, it’s such a huge thing for them to be able to get those items. When a veteran comes in and they get paired up with an animal, kind of as a team, they get treats, a collar and a bunch of other items. In the end, it’s really helping almost 100 of these teams do things and get going.”
Soldier’s Best Friend was founded by John Burnham, a local veterinarian and son of a World War II veteran, in 2011. When his father died in 2007, he was looking for a way to give back and combine his military interests to honor his father with his expertise as a vet. Through his practice, Burnham saw the incredible impact pets could have on their owners as well as an increasing problem of homeless dogs in the area. The idea was born.
Instead of acquiring already-trained service dogs, giving them to veterans and then sending them away, Soldier’s Best Friend takes dogs from local shelters, pairs them with veterans, and has them spend two months training together for a stronger bond, according to Katie Ares, executive director of Soldier’s Best Friend.
“We’re unique because our veterans and dogs actually train together to build a trusting relationship that saves two lives at once and inspires countless others,” Ares said. “So, we’re working to not only support combat veterans with combat-related post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury but also giving loving homes and important missions to Arizona homeless dogs.”
Their approach to training uses the owner-handler model, where both the veteran and the dog are trained on taking care of each other in a rigorous program that takes at least six to nine months. Ares said part of training includes a public outing and three tasks chosen by the veterans to accomplish, such as reminding the owner to take their medicine or even turning lights on to wake from nightmares. When the training is complete, the dog is either a therapeutic companion dog or an officially registered service dog.
Ares said while many people are just looking for a therapeutic dog, they end up staying in the program to complete the process for a service dog after seeing the benefits.
Tom Chauncey, an attorney at Gust Rosenfeld for nearly 50 years and a previous board member at Soldier’s Best Friend, said he was introduced to the program 10 years ago. He was so impressed by the mission that he has been a sponsor and supporter from that day forward.
“I attended a graduation (from the program), and one of the veterans shared his story,” Chauncey said. “He would make a statement and then he would look down at his dog for reassurance. Then he’d give us another sentence or so and look down at his dog again for reassurance. He told us a story about his injury, his recovery and his training with the dog. It was just so impactful that I have been committed ever since.”
When Gust Rosenfeld donated in celebration of its 100th anniversary, Chauncey was the one who threw Soldier’s Best Friend into the hat. Faunkhauser said giving back to the community is a part of the firm’s founding principles, and most of the attorneys are volunteers for or involved with different charity and community service organizations. Their “give 100” project was just a way to go above and beyond what they were already doing.
“The firm tries to do a lot of things, but I have to tell you, there’s not many organizations that have such a tremendous impact on the individual lives of folks that need it like the concept Dr. Burnham created, you know, saving two lives at a time between the rescue dog and the veteran. It’s a wonderful combination,” Chauncey said.
So far, Soldier’s Best Friend has graduated 305 veteran/dog teams and rescued 186 homeless dogs. Besides any travel expenses from going to training, everything is free for the veterans. They receive the dog, a collar, leash, backpack, food bowls, food, treats and training at no cost. Ares said the donations from Gust Rosenfeld will help support current teams and teams for years to come.
“I can say for not only our trainers but our followers on social media and our veteran teams it was amazing to see that Gust Rosenfeld provided us with the equipment that we use and that we offer to our veterans when they’re coming into the program,” she said.
“It’s great to know that if we’re recommending or using a product that we can offer that to our veterans, because our program is provided at no cost to our veterans. Donations like that with such wonderful, much-needed items are integral to our training program.”
Ares said Soldier’s Best Friend is always in need of support, whether it’s in the form of a donation, fostering or volunteering.
For information on how to help, visit soldiersbestfriend.org.