By By Jody Norwood General Manager
American Legion members are hoping to find a local veteran in need of a life-changing service dog.
American Legion Post 68 members began looking several years ago for local ways to help combat a startling rise nationally in suicide, depression and post traumatic stress disorder rates. They found a unique approach: service dogs.
Post members formed a committee to explore ways to reduce the cost for training and matching a canine companion with a veteran diagnosed with PTSD. They originally faced estimates of $25,000 to train a dog, but have gotten that figure down through hard work by volunteers.
"We started our program about four years ago," said Joe Merimee, committee chairman. "Everything we do is funded locally through fundraisers and donations."
The group's next fundraiser will be its annual golf scramble, which will be held May 11 at Mineral Mound Golf Course in Lyon County.
Post members have matched two dogs so far, the first -- an 18-month-old Labrador Retriever -- to retired Lieutenant Colonel Richard Gill, of Kuttawa. The second was matched with a veteran from Clarksville, Tenn.
Last week, Merimee said they are looking to pair another service canine with a veteran in need.
"We need a local applicant," Merimee said. "We are prepared and have the resources and a dog ready. We just need to find a soldier."
Merimee said the training process conducted by Wren's Pet Lodge in Marshall County can take up to a year. It begins with the veteran meeting the lab, then several months of training by Clay McElya.
"There's some work that the vet has to do with us," McElya said. "We've got to teach them how to control the dog and do things. Right now our biggest issue is that a service dog would help veterans that don't know we exist as an option."
McElya, a veteran, said his desire to help others -- from those suffering from PTSD to pediatric cancer or other conditions -- service animals led him to find ways to train animals quicker and at a reduced cost. A consolidated approach and pairing the animal with its companion earlier allows for much of the cost savings, which has brought the cost down from as much as $25,000 to about $5,000.
The cost includes staff time for trainers, as well as feeding and housing the animal for several months. His approach includes updating and correcting behavior after the pairing.
McElya hopes to someday create a non-profit agency to help train and match more people in need with service animals. Right now, it's easier for McElya to work with veterans and groups in the western Kentucky area due to the limited resources available.
"We're in the infant stages of this," McElya said. "I think we're doing a good job with no money.... We'd like to help locally first. We're only going to be able to do so many dogs."
McElya said he normally breeds labs to train as service dogs, but knowing the interests of who it will be paired with can help him select the best breed.
For more information on how to connect an area veteran with a service companion, or to sign up for the golf scramble, phone Merimee at 270-625-0462. Wren's will also be working with North Marshall Middle School in Marshall County on Saturday as part of a fundraiser at Mike Miller Park.
For more information on that event, please phone Daniel Whiteside at 270-395-5827.