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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
Northwest News

North Tampa organization provides wounded vets with service dogs

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NORTH TAMPA - Chicago native Mike Halley joined the Marine Corps at 17, an eight-year hitch that included two tours in Vietnam at the height of the war.

The door gunner/crew chief in the Raging Bulls helicopter unit did not realize when he was discharged, arriving home just days after the 1968 Tet Offensive, that he faced another battle: post-traumatic stress disorder.

His victory over that severe condition would be helped by an unlikely partner, a Doberman pinscher.

Today, the 69-year-old Halley runs K-9s for Veterans, which he and his wife, Pam, founded in 2008.

The organization provides service dogs to wounded soldiers and disabled veterans. Disabilities can include balance issues, diabetes, seizures, brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.

Randi Goss of Austin, Texas, a seven-year veteran of the Air Force, is a typical client. Goss said she has been in and out of Veterans Administration hospitals since October 2009 when she was diagnosed with PTSD and considered a suicide risk.

"I was looking for a service dog, and I couldn't afford to pay thousands of dollars" for one trained to aid PTSD patients, Goss said. She discovered Halley's nonprofit group online: K9sforveterans.org.

After providing medical proof and other documentation to qualify for a PTSD service dog, Goss came here to meet Halley and Beau, the standard poodle trained and teamed with her, partly because the breed does not pose a problem for allergies.

Seeking a service dog for her Army veteran husband, Candy Goulet researched many organizations. "A lot of them were wanting money or wanting this or that," she said. Others offered to train a dog and deliver it, but that would leave the Goulets as the untrained household members in the new relationship.

She discovered K-9s for Veterans was unique, providing qualified veterans with the dog, and more, at no cost.

"They train you and the dog together, and they house you," said Goulet. "That's amazing." The couple was teamed up with Rogue, another standard poodle. That was 13 months ago. Now she and her husband, William, volunteer daily at the group's headquarters, a fenced compound at 907 E. 129 Ave., a block east of North Nebraska Avenue.

Onsite housing there for two weeks provides time for clients to train and bond with their new dog.

In eight days, Goss, the Texan, discovered the value of Beau's training.

"He's helped tremendously," said Goss, who lives alone. "He reminds me to take my meds. He can sense when my body chemistry is off. And if I'm in pain when I have migraines he will remind me to take my pills before my headache gets worse."

Nancy Cowan, a 27-year Army veteran, is another client who travelled a great distance to obtain a service dog from Halley's organization. "I did little research to see what was out there and I liked what they did better than the rest of them," said the Warrenton, Mo. resident.

She selected Rayne, a 4-year-old Doberman pinscher.

"I saw her and just knew she was the one I wanted," she said. "She's going help me cope with a lot of issues."

Cowan said that after the first of many nights with her new companion, she has overcome one of those issues.

"Sunday night I was nervous in anticipation. Monday night was my first night with the dog. Tuesday night, I zonked," she said. "I sleep great now." Halley isn't surprised clients travel great distances. "We've got dogs up in Canada, California, the Northeast, Maryland, Maine, all over the place," he said.

So far, the organization has provided 108 dogs to veterans.

Halley's organization does not buy dogs, but accepts suitable breeds. Many are donated, like two black poodles pups from a breeder who retained their apricot-colored littermates to sell. The poodles' training will begin at the age of 6 months.

Rayne and another Doberman were relinquished by a couple who, living in their car, lacked the ability and finances to properly care for the animals. Both dogs were petrified and fearful at first.

"We started lovin' on em and feeding them good food," and both came around, Halley said. "I'm very pro-Doberman pinscher," said Halley, whose own post-traumatic stress was reduced when he was given a Doberman to care for. Learning the dog's needs gave him more confidence and focus.

Today, he owns another Doberman, Porsche. Taking her on visits to James A. Haley Veterans Hospital promoted other veterans to inquire how they could obtain a service dog, and led to the founding of K-9s for Veterans.

Halley is partial to the breed and favors them for training as PTSD service dogs.

"I hate to say they are the very best, because everybody has their own thoughts. I like Dobermans; their DNA is correct, they're a pure working dog. A German shepherd is half working dog, and half herder. If you get the dog that's looking for a job, its just like the right tool for the right job," Halley said. So far, the organization has placed 108 dogs with veterans, and Halley said he sees no retirement on the horizon.

gwilkens@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7124

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