Tony Russell, Executive Director and Founder of South Dakota Service Dogs, knows first hand how hard it can be to receive a trained service animal and more importantly how invaluable a service animal can be to Veterans who are suffering from exposure to traumatic events.
“Rush and I were paired together after I was on a two year waiting lists for a service dog. I found out that there was a local hockey team, the Rapid City Rush, and they were doing a community outreach program and they were pairing and raising a service dog for a local veteran. I was the lucky recipient of this dog and he changed my life, dramatically. If it wasn’t for Rush, I probably wouldn’t still be here today.”
Russell and his wife decided that the gift that they were given, was something they wanted to pay forward to other veterans and first responders. Russell says,
“And so we started South Dakota Service Dogs. We wanted to find a way that we could pay it forward to other veterans and first responders. We were giving local veterans and first responders service dogs at no cost to them. We are starting with puppies as young as ten weeks and we’re pairing them with their veterans if they’re able to. Sometimes with mobility issues, the veterans are not able to raise the dogs themselves. And so we do have volunteer puppy raiser families that that will raise the dogs and train them one on one and with our training staff. And then at the proper time, somewhere between the six month and year mark, typically the dogs will then be transferred to their veteran and go on to serve for the rest of their lives.”
Russell describes his recovery,
“I spent a significant amount of time in military hospitals, and Walter Reed has an amazing therapy dog program. And I saw the benefits of that dog program personally, and my doctors saw that benefit, too, in my medical reactions. And so they they suggested that I get a service dog. When I got on the waiting list, it was a two year waiting list. And then some of those waiting lists had price tags attached to them that were upwards of $20,000 to $30,000. And that’s just not practical. We looked around and there are organizations in our community like Mission 22, which is a great active organization that does a lot to help fight and help try to prevent veteran suicide. But 22 veterans a day or more is an unacceptable number. And we know that a service animal can help prevent that. And if we have access to these things, then we need to do everything that we can in our power to try to get these dogs in the hands of veterans or first responders or people who have suffered truly traumatic events and can benefit from the life change of a service animal.”
Russell understands how hard it can be for Veterans to adjust being back home.
“Before I got Rush, I have two little boys and my children were very distant from me. And it was a product of Post-Traumatic stress. And that’s not something that I am proud of. But there were triggers that would set me off and my children, being normal children and their noise levels would sometimes set me off. And they didn’t know when or how that would happen. And so they would be very distant from me. And so there was a time period where I didn’t have a relationship with my kids. And so now I have a, I would say, pretty good relationship with them because Rush literally comes between us. He, he kind of quarterbacks that interaction if I start getting anxious, he’ll alert me. If they start doing something that’s kind of out of line, he’ll push them away or corral them. Before Rush, I for a period of time slept in my closet because of night terrors and different mental health related items that come with some military service and traumatic events. That was the only place that I felt safe and having rush around allows me to feel safe. And I can sleep in a bed. I can go out in public. I can do the things and interact with people as a normal human being again and have a quality of life that is just like anyone else and have the interactions with my family that are invaluable and literally life changing.”
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