From Death Row to Service Dogs

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Dogs rescued from open admission shelters are getting more than just a second chance at a happy ending thanks to some innovative rescuers. Throughout the country, dogs are being rescued from shelters before their time is up to be trained for service dogs.

One program making a huge difference in Chicago is Pits for Patriots, which was founded last year by Kelly and Greg Yearwood. The organization rescues pit bulls and trains them to be service dogs for veterans and first responders.

The Yearwoods had been involved in dog rescue for several years before fostering and adopting their first pit bull. They fell in love with the breed and were amazed at how smart, compassionate, and loyal the dogs were. Kelly Yearwood says they started to think about how they could do more than rescue.

“We wanted to find a way to rescue pit bulls and give back and decided to look at training service dogs,” she said. “At first, we were not going to use just rescue dogs. The more we looked into it, the breed that needed us the most was pit bulls and the people that needed us the most are veterans.”

Pits for Patriots rescues pit bulls from Chicago Animal Care and Control and other places and they do take owner-relinquished dogs. Dogs are evaluated to find out if they are good with strangers, children, men, women, and other pets. They also need to keep their cool in a variety of situations. Dogs then start training.

The dogs in Pits for Patriots program must first pass their Canine Good Citizenship test and get certified as a therapy dog. Then the real work begins. The dogs must pass 10 levels of training with a score of 95 percent or higher to be fully certified as a service dog. Dogs live in foster homes during training and are continually evaluated.

Dogs that fail to move up and make it to service dog status are put up for adoption. The dogs have been popular with many members of the first responder community in Chicago. Because pit bulls often get a bad rap, the Yearwoods weren’t sure how veterans would react to their organization and dogs.

“We had standing room only at our booth all 12 hours at the Illinois Warrior Summit last year,” she said. “Most of the vets we met not only knew the heritage of the breed but valued the loyalty. Men who fight for our country have this code to leave no one behind; a pit bull is the same way.”

Pits for Patriots isn’t alone. In California, a group called Canine Support Teams rescues dogs from shelters. Women in a California Women’s Correctional Facility then train those dogs. Freedom Service Dogs and Pets for Vets also rescue dogs and train them to be service dogs and a new federal initiative, the Veteran Dog Training Therapy Act, will pair those with post traumatic stress disorder with shelter dogs to train those dogs to help others.

Kathy Mordini is a freelance writer that covers the Chicago animal rescue community and pet trends. She writes daily on Examiner.com. Read her column online and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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