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Former Army military policeman and K-9 handler John Cooper is a man on a mission these days. Instead of training canines to detect drugs or other illegal substances, the retired staff sergeant hopes to use dogs to help other veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other challenges they face.
"I have a real passion for helping veterans and a real love for dogs, so this is a way for me to mix both of them," Cooper said of his work with the Pets for Vets program. The Pets for Vets program is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that matches veterans with dogs from animal shelters to find the right pairing for both the veteran and the animal.
According to the Pets for Vets website (www.pets-for-vets.com), veterans are interviewed to determine what the veteran is looking for in a companion animal, which is then paired with the veteran's personality and lifestyle to ensure the perfect veteran-pet match. Once the pet is selected, one of the program's trainers teaches basic pet obedience and other important behaviors to live with the new owner.
Cooper said he is looking for his first shelter dog to train for a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD and other anxiety issues.
Once he finds the right dog, Cooper said he expects it to take about eight weeks to complete basic obedience training, which is includes proper behavior around other people and other dogs.
"Dogs have a way of knowing when something isn't right with their owner, and they can make it better," he said.
In order to start a chapter in the tricommunity area, Cooper said someone needs to come to the front and serve as the chapter director.
Georgia Pets of Vets chapter director Barbara Blair echoed Cooper's call for someone in the area to serve as a chapter director.
"John's been great working and we're glad to have him," Blair said. "We need volunteers to help John with fundraising, but we need a chapter director."
The chapter director should have experience in business management or managing a nonprofit organization, she said, adding that they have to be comfortable working on the fundraising side as well as with the trainers and veterans.
"The most important thing is that they have to be organized. They have to be prepared and they have to be committed," Blair said.
Cooper said he encourages people who are interested volunteering to go to the organization's website to fill out an application. They can make donations on the website as well. More information can be found on the organization's Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/#!/PetsforVetsInc.
Blair said the biggest benefit of volunteering is that feeling of joy "you get when you get to give the dog to the vet."