Special Canines

MILITARY VETERANS are a special band of people. They put their lives on the line each day to protect our country. For that, we are indebted.

Unfortunately, their tours of duty often times takes a toll on their physical and mental well-being. Some veterans do not seamlessly return to society.

All too many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that affects nearly one in five of the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, statistics show one veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes in the United States.

A Harrison County woman is doing her part to ease the pain and hardships for veterans afflicted with that disorder. Sheila Slezak is making a positive difference through the Dogs 4 Warriors program she started in December of 2013.

Slezak is a certified animal behaviorist and has trained dogs for police departments for 30 years. She is now giving troubled veterans a new lease on life.

Slezak says her inspiration came from seeing veterans just weren’t getting the help they need. In addition, she knew that many veterans were falling victim to scams from people who charge exorbitant fees for dogs that have not actually had any training.

Securing the proper dogs is no easy task. She obtains the canines from rescue shelters, puppy donations from breeders, or dogs that were obtained for her K-9 training but turn out to be better suited as service dogs. Friends have even shipped her dogs from Europe.

Slezak noted that PTSD service dogs are different from emotional support animals. The service dogs are specially trained to have excellent obedience skills and stay by their owner’s side 24/7. They’re trained to wake owners up from nightmares and watch out for them so they’re not startled by others approaching, a common issue with PTSD.

The dogs can also accompany their owners anywhere, including shopping areas and schools, in the same manner that service dogs for physically handicapped individuals can. Each dog is uniquely paired with a veteran, and receives a minimum of 400 hours of training.

Her life-changing service does come at a price.

Food costs alone range from $2,500 to $3,000 a month, and most of the costs are paid out of pocket. Her humanitarian cause is aided by donations and fundraisers.

The program has been so successful in changing the lives of veterans in need, it has attracted interest from across the country.

She is currently training 30 dogs, but 100 vets are on the waiting list. Slezak gives out no more than 10 dogs a month, meaning her task is an endless one.

Slezak draws our praise for providing such a vital service to our veterans. She also earns s additional praise for doing it while shouldering much of the financial burden.