By Faribault Daily News |

Service dogs aren't built in a day at local nonprofit | News | southernminn.com

They say it takes a village to raise a child. The same is true for a service dog.

Believet, a Northfield nonprofit, pairs service dogs with veterans at no cost to them. By the time a service dog is ready to go home with a veteran, however, years of training and work are already in place.

Service dogs help veterans in a variety of ways. Some dogs help veterans in physical ways, picking up keys, phones or medicine bottles for their owners, while others help emotionally.

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Sonny, a hound-lab mix, practices picking up keys. (Jacob Swanson/Faribault Daily News)

Some service dogs can recognize nightmares by pulling the blankets off a bed or turning lights on to wake people up or de-escalate panic attacks by recognizing early signs of anxiety or panic, Believet Executive Director Sam Daly said.

Most Believet clients have major depressive disorder, anxiety or traumatic brain injuries, Daly said. Often, it’s spouses or family members that reach out to Believet for help.

“They are worried that their son or daughter or loved one is going to commit suicide any minute and it’s not like ‘Oh, I’m a little worried about them,’” Daly said. “They feel like they’re out of options.”

Sometimes, it’s just the dog’s presence that helps, Daly said. Having a dog present can help alleviate some of the veterans’ stress in public that arises from years in the military.

“If you were going to go for a walk in the park, it might just be a walk in the park, but for them, it’s exposure to dangers,” Daly said. “To drive their kids to school, they may be looking at rooftops, they may be looking at crossing guards [thinking] re those people a threat to me?”

A long process

Putting veterans together with service dogs that fit their specific needs takes a while. Most dogs don’t start the training program until they’re six to 12 months old. The program itself then takes 12 to 18 months of additional work.

Tim Valentine drives from Red Wing four to five times a week to work with Fred, a labrador retriever. Fred has been in the program since August and Valentine began working with him in January.

The two will spend 120 hours training and pass a public access test before Fred can go home with Valentine for good. Right now, Fred is allowed to spend weekends with the retired Army veteran, where his main purpose is to help Valentine physically.

“I’ve had other dogs. I couldn’t imagine them doing what he does for me, as far as assisting me,” Valentine said. “Just the companionship alone is great.”

The organization, located at Northfield Kennels, has 12 dogs in the program right now, all at different stages.

Believet doesn’t have a breeding program. Instead, it takes dogs in from animal shelters and humane societies and accepts donated animals. Until the dogs are ready to enter the program, long-term foster families care for them, teaching them obedience and other skills they’ll need to be successful.

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Patty Benson, a volunteer trainer with Believet, rewards Freedom with a treat. (Jacob Swanson/Faribault Daily News)

At Believet, they work with volunteer trainers and staff every day of the week. On weekends, they go home with short-term foster families for enrichment and social time.

“There’s a lot of people involved in this. We get attached to the dogs, but a lot of people get attached to the dogs,” Daly said. “When we have a graduation ceremony, there’s a lot of people who have a stake in their dogs. It can be very emotional for people to give up a dog, but that community service aspect is driving them.”

In the end, everyone is happy to see the dogs go, however, as they move on to provide crucial help for those that need them.

“We love dogs, but the program is really about the disabled veteran,” Daly said.

An investment of time, effort and money

Daly started the program when he returned from Afghanistan in 2014. He trained explosive-detection dogs for the military and has almost 30 years of training with Northfield Kennels.

Training dogs for the military and training dogs for service and companionship are different, but they’re often very similar. One commonality is the investment of time and effort that it takes to prepare a dog for work.

“It’s one thing about training a dog and in some respects the military didn’t really understand that either. They thought well, if we need a bomb dog, we’ll order a bomb dog,” he said. “It’s not like bolting together a truck. There’s no substitute of time, maturity and training. You can’t invent them overnight.”

There’s also a large monetary investment. The cost of adopting, caring for and training a service dog over the course of the 12 to 18-month training program is $28,000.

Since the dogs are provided at no cost to the veterans, all of that comes from fundraising. Believet’s next fundraiser is the fourth annual Grand Event, held Friday from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Grand Event Center in Northfield. The event consists of live music, a raffle and a silent auction, along with appetizers.

The event is free, though donations to Believet are encouraged. Much of the fundraising done is through small donations from community members. A $10 donation covers a month of flea and tick treatment, heartworm prevention, training rewards and treats or flyers and postage for events, while a $25 donation covers a dog service vest, ear wash, nail clippers and shampoo for a dog, according to Believet’s website.

“We just have a lot of individual donors who donate $20 or $50 to us and it matters. It really adds up,” Daly said.

In the near future, Believet would like to make a few improvements, adding a new training room for the dogs. The training room contains a bedroom setup, booths to emulate a restaurant and more to prepare the dogs for every situation.

How many dogs come through the program also depends on funding. Daly said Believet has the capacity for about 25 dogs, but funding allows for 12 currently.

More funding means help for more veterans.

“It’s an incredible organization to donate to and not just with the dogs, but to connect to other veterans,” retired Marine and Eagan resident Quinn Willmarth said. “For me, I’ve been out almost 30 years, and you don’t realize what kind of issues you have and that you’re alone until you start talking to other veterans and they’re experiencing the same kind of thing that you are. You see you’re not alone. It’s also a place to get your dogs out and work and also to talk to other veterans and help them.”