In honor of Veterans Day: Operation Kindness’ Hazel helps Glenn Heights Marine

Submitted photo.
Operation Kindness and North Texas Chapter of Pets for Vets trained Hazel to be a companion for North Texas Marine Steven Osteen.

GLENN HEIGHTS — Operation Kindness, the original and largest no-kill animal shelter in North Texas, and the North Texas Chapter of Pets for Vets are training shelter dogs to become companions for North Texas military veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress issues.

At no cost to the veteran, shelter dogs are vetted, matched and then professionally trained to fit into the veteran's lifestyle. Both the veteran and the animal receive training for the lifetime of the dog.

After serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, North Texas Marine Steven Osteen sometimes experiences feelings of anxiety due to post-traumatic stress disorder. To help keep calm when these feelings arise, Steve decided to apply for a companion animal through the Pets for Vets program. Steve was instantly selected and then connected with a professional trainer from Operation Kindness to discuss what type of companion dog would appropriately fit his needs, lifestyle and personality. After meeting with Steve, it was apparent he would need a dog that would be calm and comfortable in social situations.

This is where longtime volunteer and foster parent for Operation Kindness, Debra Knight, comes into play. She began fostering Hazel, a three-year-old retriever mix. What she thought would be a short, two-week stay evolved into a very successful three-month companion training program. In order to become a companion animal, dogs are required to take tests to assess their social skills, ability to be trained, handling and reactivity, anxiety triggers and house manners. Only two percent of shelter animals meet these requirements. Hazel, however, scored an almost perfect score of 90 percent.

Each week Debra met with Amber Jester, a certified behavior specialist and animal trainer at Operation Kindness. Together they created the curriculum to prepare Hazel for becoming a companion. Hazel quickly learned how to sit and many other important behaviors to help her future veteran companion.

"Fostering for Pets for Vets was a great experience for me. You know it is the right thing to do when everybody wins," said Debra. "The veteran got a companion animal, a shelter dog got a home, my dogs got a stronger pack leader, and I got a rich experience in training with the mentoring and guidance of a professional trainer."

Today, almost three months after her initial training, Hazel accompanies Steve wherever he goes including trips to the zoo, circus, grocery store and many more adventures. In crowded situations, Steve is able to focus all of his attention on Hazel – relieving feelings of anxiety which helps keep him calm. Steve credits Hazel's assistance with helping him save his life and his marriage.

As part of the program, Operation Kindness also provides the veteran with supplies and equipment such as a crate, food and water bowls, and grooming supplies to help the dog and owner start their new life together. Throughout the process, the trainer provides ongoing support to the veteran and continues to make home visits to assist with training techniques. All of this is done at no cost to the veteran.

Operation Kindness' Pets for Vets program needs more volunteers willing to foster and train dogs for veterans. If you would like to volunteer, or know a veteran who could benefit from this program, please contact Tomi Tucker at ttucker@operationkindness.org or visit http://www.operationkindness.org/opk/homepage/pets-for-vets/ for more information.

Pets for Vets is a nonprofit organization founded by animal trainer Clarissa Black. The national organization has 22 chapters in 18 states, two of which are in Texas – in the Houston and North Texas areas. Operation Kindness, the North Texas chapter, is the first animal shelter nationwide to be granted chapter status. For more information on Pets for Vets, visit www.pets-for-vets.com.