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No-fee Pets for Vets matches military personnel with animal buddies

Shirley McMarlin
| Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, 10:03 a.m.

Never has the moniker “man’s best friend” seemed more apt in describing the relationship between dog and human, than with a program at North Hills-based Animal Friends.

That program, Pets for Vets, matches new four-footed friends to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The service is provided free to the veterans.

A national organization, Pets for Vets provides trained emotional support animals (usually dogs) that are personally matched to individual veterans based on personality, lifestyle and even breed preferences.

Animal Friends is the only western Pennsylvania participant in the program, says communications director Shannon Clark.

Humble beginnings

It’s a natural partnership, Clark says, as Animal Friends was founded in 1943 to take care of pets belonging to soldiers going off to World War II.

“These soldiers were leaving for the war, and there was nowhere for them to turn,” she says. “They were opening up their front doors and hoping for the best, hoping someone would come along and take care of (their animals).

“It’s heartbreaking, when you think about it.”

Founder Alice Richardson rented a room in the basement of the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, Clark says, and went about the business of matching pets that had been left behind with new caregivers.

The organization now occupies a 75-acre site in Pittsburgh’s North Hills and annually serves about 2,600 homeless animals, including cats, dogs and rabbits that are available for adoption.

The right animal

To be eligible for an animal through Pets for Vets, a veteran must be approved through an application process, including medical documentation of PTSD or TBI, and determination of that person’s specific needs, Clark says.

When the application process is complete, trainers go in search of a compatible animal — which may be found in the Animal Friends shelter, but often comes from another facility around the area.

The animal then spends about six to eight weeks in the trainer’s home, learning basic commands and being trained for specific needs and behaviors, such as helping to calm the veteran or becoming comfortable around a wheelchair or other devices.

“The process is one that takes a bit of time, but that’s what makes it worthwhile,” Clark says. “We’re truly making a difference and, in some cases, saving a life.”

The veteran and pet don’t meet until what’s known as their match day.

Very first match

“I was privileged to be there for our very first match,” Clark says, when retired U.S. Army Sgt. Don Borland met a Jack Russell terrier named Louie.

“It was so sweet. (Don) said it was exactly what he was looking for, exactly what he needed,” she says. “He thought Louie might take a while to warm up to him, but he jumped right in Don’s lap. The connection was undeniable.”

In addition to Pets for Vets, Animal Friends provides all pet adoption services to veterans and active military members at no cost.

As with all adoptions through the organization, each newly adopted pet will be microchipped, spayed or neutered and current on vaccines. In addition, military personnel receive 50 percent off all vaccines for the life of the pet through the Animal Friends wellness clinic.

In 2017, Clark says, Animal Friends’ veteran adoptions totaled 140 animals, including dogs, cats and rabbits. Two of those adoptions were through the highly trained companion animal program.

‘A wonderful person’

The no-fee Pets for Vets adoptions are supported through the Major Ben Follansbee Memorial Fund, established by the parents of the decorated U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, who took his own life in 2012 following multiple deployments in Iran and Afghanistan.

“His parents came to us to establish the fund, because they knew the many challenges vets have in coming back to civilian life,” Clark says. “This is a way to say ‘thank you’ to veterans for what they do for all of us.

“(Major Follansbee) was a wonderful person, very dedicated and compassionate, just an incredible person. I’m really sad that I didn’t get to meet him.”

The Pittsburgh chapter of Pets for Vets is also supported by a designated donor fund through the United Way.

Information on making a donation to either fund is available on the Animal Friends website.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.

Military veteran Karen was matched with Winston through the Pets for Vets program at Animal Friends in Pittsburgh.
Animal Friends
Military veteran Karen was matched with Winston through the Pets for Vets program at Animal Friends in Pittsburgh.
Military veteran Gary (right) with his partner Jill and Hondo, his Pets for Vets canine match.
Animal Friends
Military veteran Gary (right) with his partner Jill and Hondo, his Pets for Vets canine match.
Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Don Borland was paired with Louie through Animal Friends’ Pets for Vets program.
Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Don Borland was paired with Louie through Animal Friends’ Pets for Vets program.
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