In 2014, Elaine Starks and her local nonprofit, Power Paws Assistance Dogs, decided to reach out and help a whole different group of individuals: veterans.
This branch of assistance is known today as Empowering Intrepid Warriors. The goal of EIW is to provide assistance dogs to veterans and help with Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) in a substance abuse program with the support of grants.
Power Paws received $80,000 in 2015 and $60,000 in 2016 to serve 117 veterans over 16 months. The grant was from an individual donor and helped ten veterans receive assistance dog placements for PTSD.
Four of those placements were for PTSD compounded with mobility challenges. Altogether, 103 veterans became part of the Community Outreach through the Therapeutic Rehabilitation program, which held bi-weekly, therapeutic, rehabilitative meetings with puppies.
“The veterans worked in our nursery by taking our puppies through their daily activities and routine of social engagement with humans,” Starks said. “While Power Paws no longer has a puppy nursery, EIW aims to emulate the same benefits with teams training a service dog for a veteran.’”
Starks and her team have been trying to build funding to continue this program. With last year’s catastrophic events, she said it’s been tough.
Just before the pandemic hit, Empowering Intrepid Warriors planned on starting in-house training at the Phoenix VA Hospital on 7th St. and Indian School Road. The group’s goal was to engage service dogs with vets who were not ready to take on a pet but would take advantage of the dogs’ therapies. Over 120 vets were able to visit with the supportive pooches.
In September 2021, Congress passed the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act. This is the sixth act that has been approved in the last ten years.
The act requires that the Department of Veterans Affairs establishes a grant program providing service dogs to those diagnosed with service-connected trauma through organizations that offer accredited training – this is where Empowering Intrepid Warriors comes in.
Breeders provide the service dogs at the American Kennel Club, but Starks said they also wanted to implement dogs from shelters because of how overrun they have been in recent months.
“We wanted to help vets while also helping these dogs find a forever home,” she said.
The organization uses labs and retrievers as service dogs. Other breeds can be used on occasion, but they have to be evaluated with a trainer and other dogs beforehand.
The dogs are trained in three categories: mobility, PTSD and vets with type-1 diabetes. It usually takes 16-24 months to prepare the animals. There is a three-week placement process and a six-month follow-up to ensure that the dog and veteran are the right fit for each other.
“As we continue EIW, our long-term goals are to provide each veteran that needs a service dog with a service dog and to continue AAI so that they can also train dogs,” Starks said.
Veterans can also become EIW volunteers with the hope that they will “leave no veteran behind” and be able to move past the hurdles of PTSD to return to their civilian life after service. Starks said that the effects of the pandemic are still lingering, but their goal is to home 12-14 dogs in 2022.