By Alexandra Fradelizio | m/Oppenheim.Org Writer
Dogs are often called man’s best friend for good reason. For centuries, our canine companions have provided protection, safety, and, above all, unyielding love. Based in Englewood, Colorado, Freedom Service Dogs trains puppies and dogs to assist individuals with debilitating physical conditions and disabilities so they can lead fulfilling and independent lives.
“That bond becomes so amazingly strong that the dog can do whatever to help,” says President & CEO of Freedom Service Dogs Michele Ostrander.
The organization primarily serves veterans with post-traumatic stress, children with autism or other cognitive disabilities, and those with mobility issues, including spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy. All dogs are provided free of charge to clients across Colorado and the country, but physical therapy professionals are hired to first identify which individuals can best benefit from a service dog.
“A service dog is amazing,” states Ostrander, “but it’s not an answer for everyone.”
“We want to make sure we are vetting our clients well and that it really is a good tool for them to have them become more independent.”
In order for their clients to become self-sufficient, handlers and trainers properly mold the dogs to best fit their specific needs. For veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, the dogs often act as a shield to provide a safe space and reduce anxiety while in public. The animals are also taught to lay on their owners’ chests or nudge their arms or noses to bring them back to the present if they experience nightmares. Dogs serving children with autism can help reduce their anxiety and work as a security blanket to help the client feel secure. Those with physical disabilities can use the dog to pick up dropped items, open doors, or even alert others if they need medical assistance. No matter what the animal is trained to do, the dogs provide safety and security for clients, making them feel more connected with others in their communities.
“The dog helps them make those baby steps to increase their confidence,” says Ostrander.
Due to all the positive work of Freedom Service Dogs, the organization currently has a waitlist of about 100 potential clients. Since it can take anywhere from 1 to 3 years to properly train each dog, a team of trainers, kennel workers, and more than 300 volunteers spend quality time with each puppy and dog as they prepare to become part of a client’s household.
Over its 32 years of existence, Freedom Service Dogs has changed their policies on which dogs become service animals. When it was first founded, the organization strictly used shelter and rescue dogs, but since that time, the breeds in shelters have changed drastically. More than half of the dogs currently available in shelters are pit bull mixes, and while they are phenomenal pets, Ostrander explains their anxious tendencies in certain situations can place many clients at risk. Paired with increased spaying and neutering polices that limits the number of available shelter puppies, the organization has moved to using breeders to better control the dogs’ socialization and temperament. Freedom Service Dogs primarily works with Labrador Retrievers because “they have been proven to be successful service dogs,” says Ostrander, but the organization continues to work with some shelter dogs as well as Golden Retrievers and poodles. With an increase in donations and resources, including a new facility, Freedom Service Dogs is looking to breed their own puppies and ultimately serve more clients.
With a master’s degree in psychology, Ostrander has worked extensively within nonprofits and was drawn to Freedom Service Dogs due their positive track record. She wants to extend the organization’s services to survivors of sexual assault, especially female military members who were abused while serving. And, of course, Ostrander loves dogs and is surrounded by them whenever she is at work.
“You cannot have a bad day when you have a dog in your office.”
Whether its a Labrador or a Golden Retriever, poodle or mixed breed, Freedom Service Dogs is proving dogs are can be more than a best friend. They can give individuals a chance at a normal life.
“We can really transform the lives of people.”