When the catastrophic snowstorm pounded Texas and neighboring states on 2/21/2021, everyone suffered. Even a month later, regions of the state were still without potable water or power.
For ex police officer Kathy Rider, Director of Training at Veterans Assistance Dogs of Texas, working together with her active duty police officer husband providing aid to help people find shelter came first. The difficulties securing warmth and respite for the human population combined with the care of the service dogs in her custody and the rescue of exotic wildlife that faced imminent death due to the freezing temperatures, made for a challenging time.
“In our area up to 1000 utility poles came down during the storm. 100 year-old trees were lost and we experienced 5 days of single digit weather with 8″ to 10″ of snow. For us that is a big deal. I am Mayor of our small town of Ingram. The massive damage our area suffered was intense. My husband and I worked along with many others to deliver water and food. Usually we might see 48 hours with cold weather, but we’ve never experienced anything as bad as this,” explained Rider.
Due to its usually hot climate, Texas harbors a myriad of exotic animal species outside of the usual fauna native to the area. The extreme cold weather literally caused many animals to freeze to death, as Rider recalls:
“My husband and I were moving people out of a shelter that had lost power, to safety and warmth at a nearby High School campus. While we were busy doing that I spotted an Axis deer in trouble. This breed of deer with it large white spots originated in India and Sri Lanka and had escaped from a nearby ranch. A fawn came towards me and it was crying. I wanted to reach out and help but we were so busy organizing people to safety my husband suggested we do that first and come back for her. We came back just 40 minutes later. Her mother was nowhere in sight, perhaps she had frozen to death.
We managed to rescue and rehab the baby, but it was gut-wrenching to witness all the destruction the death that the weather caused. It wasn’t just deer, it was doves and all sorts of other animals that died. Not unlike the wildfires that plagued Australia and California last year. It was awful.”
Rider has made a career out of selfless service, and follows in the footsteps of her father who was also a police officer. Kathy Rider grew up watching and helping him train service dogs.
“My father trained drug dogs, patrol dogs all sorts. That is where I get my passion for training service dogs. At our program for veterans, we train all sorts of dogs. Mostly they are recovered from rescues. Probably about 75% of dogs we train are pulled from the pounds and the others are unwanted pets. Sometimes dogs that can’t be handled by their owners as they get older. Or “mistake” purchases where the animal has become too much for the owner to train. We get dogs that have been left at the side of the road and have wandered for miles on the hot tarmac with their paws burned,” stated Rider.
The mission statement of VA Dogs of Texas,
“To effect physical and emotional recovery and independence in Texas Veterans with disabilities by providing service dogs at no cost to the Veteran,” is clearly being achieved.
With an impressive 7 years of assistance to veterans to their credit, this organization has grown significantly over the period to meet the sadly ever-increasing demand.
There is never a charge to the veterans for the training of the dog, a considerable $25,000 spend, or the necessary 4-6 weeks training time spent with each veteran teaching them how to best work with their carefully selected canine match. Currently the program is working with between 20-23 dogs at a time.
Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Military Sexual Trauma and physical disabilities often avoid normal life situations that others take for granted. From everyday necessities like visits to grocery stores or shops, to celebratory events like 4th of July with firework displays and gatherings of large crowds, integration into society exacts challenges that veterans can find entirely overwhelming. Service dogs help mediate these difficulties and can make the world of difference in the life of a service person.
“It’s imperative that we match the right dog to the right person. This takes some know-how, some luck and a great deal of training and understanding. Our operation at Veterans Assistance Dogs of Texas is constantly evolving. We have to take the dogs in from the rescue, work with the veterinary community to ensure they are sound and healthy, and then begin the hard work of training them. Due to the increase in demand we determined we needed to add kennel space to house these dogs in transition. Once the dogs go into training they live 24/7 with their trainer, but before that a safe and secure environment for them to gather themselves back to full health is essential,” said Rider.
Tasked with building a new kennel facility from the ground up, Rider and her colleagues began the project of designing and pricing out a new kennel build.
“I was very concerned about running over our budget. Everyone involved here had great ideas about what should be included and how it should be done. Of course it is hard to build and design something to suit everyone, and different experiences and knowledge of dogs and their needs necessarily provided a basketful of opinion on the topic. When I located Horizon Structures online during a search for advice on kennels, and saw that there was a pre-fabricated way to have a professional grade kennel built off-site and delivered and set up in one defined quote and timeline, it was hard to resist. As we investigated further, asked about customization and tweaks to grade and other design features we wanted, Merv King at Horizon was on board. Nothing was too difficult to manage, and he was very patient with multiple changes and requests. Merv humored us and was really nice.”
Changes included re-designing the grade and design of the kennel for the septic system to be constructed on the specially prepared site.
“We really appreciated how fast it all came together,” said Rider, “We are very happy with our 16 box kennel, each with its own pen.”
The 24’ x 60 ‘ commercial grade kennel also incorporates a large 12’ x 20’ lobby.
Project Manager Merv King, at Horizon Structures, orchestrated a smooth delivery of the large structure utilizing two trucks.
“The trucks left the shop here in PA on Monday morning and arrived at the kennel site in Texas on Wednesday afternoon. The 2 drivers that delivered the kennels completed onsite work by Thursday lunch time,” stated King, understandably proud of the team’s hard work and accomplishment.
Unfortunately due to the severe weather event that plagued Texas during February 2021 and one that has continued well past a month, the availability of construction crews to implement the excavation and site work for the septic and other utilities at the site have yet to be completed.
“Even when the power came back on there were so many burst pipes and damage to people’s homes, construction teams can’t keep up with the demand. Of course it is tantalizing to have the kennel right there and ready to go and be unable to actually use it, but of course we want to see people’s homes put right before pressing for the use of our kennel,” stated Rider.
Meantime the program of training canines for veterans continues at a nearby canine facility, where the team strive everyday to continue to bring well-trained service dogs together with their new owners.
When asked about future plans Rider was brimming with optimism:
“Ultimately as well as taking in rescues we’d like to do a small amount of dog breeding, to bring in more of the types of dog breeds we know work wonderfully well for the veterans in need. For example, Golden Retrievers are one of our favorite breeds for the job, in addition to Labradors. While we work with many cross breeds and canines of all shapes and sizes and will always work with rescue dogs for the main part, in some cases when we pair up a service dog with his new person, the challenges the veteran faces require an extra special animal that has to have exactly the right background, training and skill set to work. Because Golden Retrievers are so smart and affable, they don’t come up for adoption very often. It is also a keen advantage to have a dog with no adverse history that can cause it to revert or regress backward based on past negative experiences during extreme situations. It also generally takes a far shorter time to train a dog with a positive training background from birth, than one that has to be re-trained for the purpose of helping as a service dog.”
As all dog owners know, certain breeds of dogs can be easier to train than others. Due to their good noses and sincere reward driven natures, Golden and Labrador Retrievers are popular across many areas of service, from leading the blind to scenting out cash, drugs and even discerning disease in humans.
Training the dog is only half of the equation when it comes to service animals. The new owners also have to be taught how to work with the dog, and veterans spend 4-6 weeks working with the team at VA Dogs of Texas to ensure a good fit and to learn how to work with each other. This secures a unique bond between canine and human. Sometimes it is necessary for dogs to return to the program together with the veteran to refresh the training and obedience lessons and build consistency in commands and actions on both sides of the newly melded team.
“It is our goal to be able to offer cabin-style living on-site at the new property, where veterans can come and stay with a private space of their own with basic services and spend time with their dogs,” explained Rider.
When not busy as Mayor, training service animals and figuring out the housing needs for canine care, Kathy Rider has her own menagerie of animals to tend. A 50-pound tortoise, a pandemonium of parrots, French Bulldogs and Pugs, previously orphaned cats, and a crippled fawn.
The running expenses for the care and training of 20 plus canines at any given time and the accommodation for the veterans during their initiation handling and working with their prospective canine partner or ‘battle buddy’ who will help them navigate the difficulties of life are high. If you would like to donate to this valuable program please reach out to their secure website and learn more about how can you can help. Updates on how the dogs are being trained, their progress and the enduring partnerships that are begun at the VA Dogs of Texas program makes inspirational viewing at their Facebook page. Give it a look!