Volunteering & Giving
September 10, 2015

Serving veterans, one paw at a time

The Puppy Jake Foundation in Iowa provides injured veterans with trained service dogs — and a local Wells Fargo team member is helping out.

Bob opens many doors for U.S. Army Spc. Mitch Chapman of Davenport, Iowa: doors in his house, to the fridge, and even to the outside world. Mitch, who was honorably discharged in 2011, suffered several injuries while stationed in Afghanistan, including a fractured spine and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veteran Mitch with his service dog, Bob.
Veteran Mitch with his service dog, Bob.

Bob is a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever that was given to Mitch by Puppy Jake Foundation to be his service dog. On July 4, Mitch says he was feeling anxious about the loud fireworks and celebrating crowds. To calm and distract him from the loud noises, Bob repeatedly touched his leg with his paw and encouraged Mitch to play with him.

Mitch says, “Bob knew what he was doing.”

Puppy Jake Foundation is based in Des Moines and serves veterans like Mitch throughout the Midwest. Volunteers who want to train and foster service dogs do not have to have experience even owning a dog, but they must commit to weekly training and occasional group outings with the dogs, says Renee Jetter, head trainer at the foundation.

One of those volunteers is Rhonda Hildreth, who has been living with and training Dean, a black English Labrador retriever, since March 2014. She also brings Dean to work with her at her Wells Fargo Home Mortgage office in Des Moines.

“Every time I bring him in, people smile when they see us,” Rhonda says. “If I don’t have him with me, people I don’t even know say, ‘Where’s your dog?’ It’s a big morale booster at the office.”

Rhonda and Dean, the service dog she is training.
Rhonda and Dean, the service dog she is training.

Sept. 11, 2015, will be Dean’s last day with Rhonda. “It’s starting to sink in that he’s soon not going to be with us anymore,” she says. “I’ve been getting emotional, but knowing he’s going to help a veteran makes it easier.”

“Rhonda’s been outstanding,” says Becky Beach, CEO and board vice president for Puppy Jake Foundation. “We couldn’t help these veterans without dedicated volunteers like her. We’re extremely grateful.”

The veterans who receive the dogs must have had an injury sustained during their service. Eligible veterans submit an application and undergo a home visit. After a dog is placed with a veteran, there are regular visits and check-ins by phone with the nonprofit’s staff.

While only a few dogs have been placed so far with veterans since the nonprofit was established in February 2013, 25 dogs are currently being fostered and trained by volunteers.

Veteran service dog Dean.
Service dog Dean.

Serving veterans

Puppy Jake Foundation has not yet determined which veteran Dean will serve, but it will be a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, Renee says.

“I just hope he gives back to the veteran what all veterans have given to Americans and that Dean is able to provide some comfort to the veteran,” Rhonda says.

Having Bob around has allowed Mitch, a father of three, to feel more comfortable going to his children’s school events.

“It’s still physically and emotionally demanding, but I can do it with Bob,” Mitch says. “He helps the whole family. When I’m irritable, he helps calm me down, which is good for the entire family.”

Mitch says he is grateful to volunteers like Rhonda and has advice for the veteran who gets Dean.

“It’s life changing to receive these dogs,” Mitch says. “It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a major step in healing.”