SHERIDAN — When Shan Foster walks through the Sheridan Dog and Cat Shelter in search of a dog, he’s typically looking for something special. It’s not a rare breed worth thousands of dollars; he needs stability.
Foster and shelter executive director Jill Moriarty have teamed up to pair dogs brought into the shelter with veterans.
Foster has years of experience training dogs, both through U.S. Department of Defense work and law enforcement. Now, he runs the Country Pet Inn in Sheridan County. He trains dogs for everything from basic obedience and behavior modification to address aggression, anxiety and destructive habits to hunting, detection and personal protection.
Moriarty, too, has a personal drive to help both veterans and dogs. She served three years of active duty in the U.S. Army before spending an additional two years in the Army Reserves. While she served, she worked as a secure communications specialist with the aim of reducing communications down time. Now, her mission is to help connect animals with good people.
With that in mind, the Stray to Service program has two primary goals — to train dogs in a way that makes them more adoptable and to serve veterans by providing service and support animals.
Purchasing a service dog can be very expensive, sometimes costing $15,000 to $30,000 up front. That, of course, doesn’t include care of the dog once it is purchased.
Good trainers put a lot of time and energy into training dogs for specific tasks, whether it’s teaching them to track lost individuals, assist with mobility issues or alert an owner to a medical emergency.
Trainers also learn a lot of what they know by working with different breeds and many dogs. For example, after earning a Master Canine Trainer Certification from the National K-9 Learning Center in Ohio and certifying a dual-purpose explosives detection and patrol dog with the Department of Defense, Foster deployed to Iraq as a private contractor to train and handle working canines.
He retired from a California police force as a K-9 officer and sheriff, during which time he also worked with a shelter to service organization.
With that acquired knowledge, Foster said he has certain breeds and certain sizes that he looks for in service animals. For example, breeds commonly thought of as intimidating usually aren’t ideal for service work. If that dog must be in a public setting with a lot of people, it can cause members of the public around it to become nervous.
Dogs also cannot be too big or too small. Ideally, they have calm temperaments and a willingness to learn, Foster said.
“It does present a challenge,” Foster said. “You need a certain friendly look.”
Foster acknowledged that all dogs, but especially shelter dogs, have idiosyncrasies. As long as they are willing to do the work, Foster said, they can usually be trained.
Moriarty said the goal of the pilot program initially included training 24 dogs in 48 weeks, but that goal would likely need to be adjusted. Some dogs can complete training in about six weeks, while others take longer.
Currently, the duo has a couple of dogs ready to be placed with veterans. They also have one veteran with whom they are working with as a potential candidate.
To place dogs with veterans, Foster and Moriarty have worked with the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Health Care System and other organizations to identify veterans who need help and are appropriate candidates. But the dogs aren’t just turned over, the veterans will have to go through training with Foster to learn how to handle their service animal.
Through the initial stages of the pilot project, Moriarty and Foster have found that a foster system would also help veterans. Some veterans that attend the Sheridan VA already have dogs and often need help caring for the animals while they receive treatment.
In addition, as dogs are trained by Foster, sometimes they need temporary homes while awaiting permanent placement with veterans.
While the program is in the early stages, the pair have high hopes that because the Sheridan VA serves veterans from around the region, their Stray to Service program will have a broad reach.