Action Toward Independence: teaching an old dog new tricks

JONATHAN CHARLES FOX
Posted 3/29/17

There’s an ordinary-looking office building in the heart of Monticello, NY, which I’ve passed many times with no idea of the extraordinary things going on behind its doors. That building, …

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Action Toward Independence: teaching an old dog new tricks

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There’s an ordinary-looking office building in the heart of Monticello, NY, which I’ve passed many times with no idea of the extraordinary things going on behind its doors. That building, 309 Broadway, hosts Action Toward Independence (ATI). I recently had the opportunity to sit down with ATI Executive Director Stephen McLaughlin, assistant director Deborah L. Worden and program manager Dennis Simmons. Over the course of the next few hours, the three told me about their amazing programs, their history, the core services they provide and their newest venture: providing service dogs to veterans who might benefit from the emotional support that canines can provide to those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“It all began on a very personal note,” Simmons said. “While looking into a therapy dog for my son, who has autism, I was informed that he wasn’t ‘disabled enough’ to qualify for a service dog.” As program manager for ATI, which is “run by and for individuals with disabilities,” and having learned of the tremendous benefit that people with autism can derive from a therapy dog, Simmons was not about to take that answer lying down. He set about not only acquiring a dog for his son, but investigating how canine companions could assist others in need. That led the team to PTSD dogs and local veterans who utilize ATI for many of the other services provided, including peer counseling, advocacy, benefits advisement and guidance toward independent living skills.

Serving both Orange and Sullivan Counties, the ATI mission is to “promote the independence, inclusion, participation and personal choice of individuals with disabilities,” so it seemed natural to Simmons to further investigate how therapy dogs could help not only his son, but those in his extended family comprising disabled community members in need.

“Once we had a dog and trainer working with my son,” he said, “I learned that there were similarities shared by those with autism and PTSD, and that many of the basic training methods were identical.” That led him to veterans’ advocate Ben Davis, who had served in the military as a dog handler, followed by a stint with the police force training K9 patrol dogs.

“It was kismet,” McLaughlin enthused, “and Ben is also learning new skills along the way. He is out in the field daily, working with the six dogs and partners actively participating in the program now.” Having heard that the dogs being trained were also being rescued from local shelters, I asked if that was true. “Oh, yes,” Worden assured me. “This program not only allows us to help our veterans, but also our animal shelters right here in the county.”

Worden, who has been with ATI for two years, wrote a grant application to secure funds from the Wounded Warrior Project, a military and veterans’ charity service organization serving over 100,000 vets nationwide. “That grant was my first really big project,” Worden said, “and I had to re-apply after being turned down the first time, but I persevered.”

The entire process can take up to 18 months and involves many components. Role playing with the animals and humans is a big part of the training, and there are multiple stages involved, which include the dog’s learning to not be distracted by loud noises, food or people other than their handler; and basic training skills like “sit and stay.”

“We found that we can cut that time down,” Simmons said, “and once a dog is placed, the dog lives with their partner immediately, 24/7.

“Fortunately, ATI was one of five organizations in the country to receive this fantastic grant,” Worden said, “and there is a possibility for renewal. Our goal is to place 20 dogs with vets in our first year.” The funding enables ATI to provide the animals their vaccines and licensing, service dog registration and vests, collars and leashes. “All that we ask is proof of veteran service. There is no cost to them for the dog or training, only daily upkeep like food and shelter.”

According to Simmons and McLaughlin, ATI’s biggest obstacle to date is “getting the word out.” While team members are often out in the field educating and informing the general public about the roster of services offered, many veterans suffer from anxiety and have a fear of perceived public stigma attached to PTSD, so reaching them is sometimes difficult. McLaughlin summed it up easily. “People with disabilities are just like you and me,” he said, “but the only way to share that is by educating the community that we serve.”

To make a donation, or learn more about ATI, call 845/794-4228 or visit www.atitoday.org.

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