SIERRA VISTA — The saying goes, “A dog is a man’s best friend.”
Since 2011, Soldier’s Best Friend has been pairing veterans and dogs together with the mission of changing both lives.
The Chandler-based nonprofit organization provides training to veterans who have combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a dog with the goal of having the canine certified as a service dog or a therapeutic companion dog.
Earlier this month, a program graduate gifted the Sierra Vista chapter of the nonprofit a private property for the group to hold its weekly training sessions.
"I think this is amazing," said Leslie Bryant, the primary trainer in Sierra Vista. "It's probably the best thing to happen for us in this area."
The training takes place in one of their five locations throughout the state of Arizona: Flagstaff, Phoenix, Prescott, Tucson and Sierra Vista. The group in Sierra Vista, which is composed of veterans from all over southeastern Arizona, meets twice a week.
It takes, on average, six to nine months to fully train a pair.
The group training was done in various public places around Sierra Vista. The group would meet at the local parks and businesses, which would cause passersby to often stop and ask questions or try to interact with the dogs.
"It's much easier and much more comfortable (for the veterans) when not in the public eye," Bryant said. "The dogs need to learn to not be distracted, and that is best done in a private setting."
Until the donated property is fully ready, the groups will continue to train in public places.
In 2017, 134 veterans were served through Soldier's Best Friend, eight of who are from Sierra Vista and other areas in southeastern Arizona. Trainings begin at various points throughout the year, and groups are kept to fewer than five people. On average, there are 40 to 45 teams training at any point during the year, according to Brenda Meir, Soldier's Best Friend executive director.
To join the program veterans apply online. Part of the application is for determining whether or not the veteran needs a dog to be provided. If the participant indicates they need a dog, Meir said they will be prompted to answer a series of questions to help determine the best breed and what is needed of the dog. All dogs, even personal dogs, will be evaluated by trainers like Bryant to make sure they are candidates for being a service dog or a therapeutic companion dog.
"I look for a dog that wants to be with human and has the ability to turn off play time to focus on their human," Bryant said.
A service dog will learn to perform tasks for their human. For those with PTSD, a service dog can wake them when they are having nightmares or even turn the lights on in a dark room.
There are stereotypes on what breeds make the best service dogs, but that is not the case. Soldier's Best Friend partners with a number of shelters and rescues across the state, as they hope to fight two battles at once.
"Part of our mission is to help with Arizona's canine overpopulation problem," Meir said. "We work with shelter and rescue partners to adopt and place dogs."
"The dogs we adopt are based on the veteran's needs. Any breed of dog can be a service dog."
Arleen Garcia, Animal Care and control supervisor at the Nancy J. Brua Animal Care Center, agreed.
She said the Sierra Vista animal shelter has partnered with Soldier’s Best Friend for the past eight years. Garcia has seen lab retriever mixes, Australian kettle mixes, great Dane-lab mixes, boxer mixes and many other breeds adapted by the organization to be trained as service dogs. This year, the shelter has adopted four dogs out to be trained as service dogs.
“Leslie will send us an email with what she needs in a dog or we will reach out to her if we have a dog we think would work,” Garcia said. “I love this program not only because they come to the shelter.
“I love that they’re helping people.”
Soldier's Best Friend is strictly an Arizona organization, and is the focus for the organization because "there's a great need." However, if a veteran from another state is willing to live in Arizona for the duration of the training, they may be accepted. For more information, visit soldiersbestfriend.org.
“I really wish more veterans would take advantage of this organization, “ Garcia said. “We’re happy to be a partner.”