Lori Stevens has made a career out of her love for dogs and giving back to those in need. She works as the Executive Director of Patriot PAWS, an organization that trains service dogs for veterans. Patriot PAWS has trained hundreds of service dogs to be companions for disabled veterans, helping to fulfill their mission of “serving those who have served”. Lori’s incredible cohort of service dogs gives veterans the independence and physical support they need.
What inspired your mission?
I started experimenting with dog training when my oldest child joined the Air Force and my dad, who was also in the Air Force, had just passed away. A few local veterans contacted me to help them train their service dogs, and I fell in love with the idea right away. I started working with those eight veterans and their dogs, and they were a measly bunch— one had rescued his dog out of a dumpster, and one was trying to train a chihuahua to be his service dog. That experience inspired me to start a doggie day care as a way to funnel the profits into my service dog training. It started off small, but now we have 450 volunteers and a 3.5 acre facility— it’s a real community that everyone helps to contribute to.
How do the service dogs benefit the lives of veterans physically and emotionally?
Service dogs give people the ability to be self sufficient. A lot of veterans have different needs than the rest of their family, and the dog is able to focus on tending to those needs. For example, we train all our dogs to put their paw on the owner’s foot to indicate that they need to go outside. The dogs have evolved that cue as a way to get their owner out of a stressful situation— if the dog senses that the veteran is feeling anxious or uncomfortable, it will use the paw cue to allow the veteran to escape. It can take veterans a very long time to get accustomed to everyday life, even with things as simple as sleeping through the night. The dogs are able to be with them through all those difficult moments. Every veteran has a different experience and handles the trauma differently, but the dogs are able to help each of them with gaining independence and freedom. Physically, they are able to help with basic actions that we take for granted, like putting on clothes or going to the bathroom. A severely injured or disabled veteran isn’t able to do those tasks, and a service dog can help them get through the day with ease.
What does training a service dog entail?
It takes two years to train a service dog and costs about $35,000 per dog. We partner with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to have incarcerated individuals help with training the dogs, and we also partner with Texas A&M University to make sure the dogs are well socialized. The dogs switch between living in the prisons and living with college students every few months, which is a very unique training process. We always use the positive reinforcement tactic in our training to make sure the dogs bond well with humans. The training starts with a foundation of 60-70 cues that every dog learns, like opening doors and retrieving items. Instead of learning to fetch a ball, our dogs learn to fetch a phone when it rings. If we have 5 veterans that need service dogs, we have them interact with about 10 different dogs that are all ready to be matched. We are able to observe the dogs and let them choose the veteran that they want to be with. Once a dog is matched with a specific veteran, we do more specialized training to fit their needs.
What makes a good service dog?
The best service dogs are the ones that love people more than anything else. We look for dogs that would always choose being with a human over being with another dog. It’s important to listen to dogs to see what they want. Just as we are able to pick a career, the dogs need to be able to choose the career they want. Do they want to be a house dog? A drug-sniffing dog? A service dog? They should have just as much of a choice as we do.