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Vets find another way to serve

NIAGARA FALLS – Veterans home from military service and shelter dogs – predominantly pit bulls – recognize something in each other that others might miss.

“They’re stigmatized, misunderstood – and loyal to a fault,” said Joe Ruszala, who co-founded Dog Tags Niagara, which helps the two groups connect. “And you could find no better friend – neither the vet nor the dog.”

Ruszala knows this firsthand. The U.S. Army veteran served in the Vietnam War. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2002, he describes himself as both a group co-founder and participant.

“This is good for my healing, too,” he said.

Ruszala, Susan Alexander and Toni Derrick have helped Amy Lewis fulfill her dream of establishing an organization that helps two groups in need. Lewis is executive director of the SPCA Niagara, and the proximity of the Niagara Falls Air Base to the SPCA made this a natural combination.

Lewis said she brought the idea with her from her previous employer, the SPCA Serving Erie County, which has a similar program, called Paws and Patriots.

SPCA Niagara launched Dog Tags Niagara on Veterans Day 2013.

“I believe it’s been incredibly successful, and not just from the dogs’ side, which I see every day, but from the veterans’ side, too,” Lewis said. “Many of the vets have come here anxious in social settings and now many of them will pop into my office and chat when they come to volunteer, so it’s been successful on both sides.”

Ruszala, of Hamburg, said it’s important to note that this organization serves all of Western New York, although it is based out of SPCA Niagara at 2100 Lockport Road, Niagara Falls.

“Vets returning from deployment – well, a lot of them haven’t come all of the way home yet,” he said. “And the thing that helps bridge that gap is a dog, but particularly a shelter dog.”

He said that Alexander and Derrick both have very strong ties to the military. Derrick’s father is a Korean War veteran and Alexander’s brother served as an Army Ranger. Ruszala said Alexander’s story is particularly poignant because her brother committed suicide.

“Twenty-two veterans commit suicide a day in the U.S., and that’s completely unacceptable,” Ruszala said. “It’s a national tragedy. But if you don’t have a reason to get up in the morning – you don’t. This program and these dogs inject a strong sense of purpose in these men and women who are suffering from transition and adjustment disorder, which makes them feel isolated and angry.”

Through the Dog Tags program, veterans are asked to give two hours a week to visit SPCA Niagara and work with the shelter dogs, who often arrive as strays or through surrenders, seizures or the courts.

The veterans work with the SPCA’s part-time trainer, Sheryl Townsend, who gives them the skills and tools they need to work with the dogs who have issues, Lewis said.

“The issues some of these dogs have run the gamut from fear, particularly of men, to food aggression or aggression with other animals or just general anxiety,” Lewis said.

How long it takes for a dog to change its behavior depends entirely on the individual dog, she noted.

“I’ve seen some turn around rather quickly, while others can take longer,” she said.

Ruszala noted, “We have 74 kennels and 84 dogs, and 64 of them are pit bulls. We embrace our pit bulls.

“For some of these dogs, this is the first time they’re getting medical attention, and they’re getting three squares a day at the shelter,” Ruszala said. “They are evaluated behaviorally. They might have hot spots – say they were from a home with a domestic violence situation and they could have a fear of men. Our job is to modify that behavior so that the dogs become adoptable.

“And something magical happens along the way,” he said. “The vet has hot spots and issues himself, but that connectivity is there between him and the dog. This is animal-assisted therapy, too. And we know that this works and makes a huge difference in both of their lives.”

In a few cases, the bond is so strong that the vet ends up adopting the dog, he said.

Ruszala also pointed to the partnership that has developed between the group and Niagara University, which actually helped the group get started, and the University at Buffalo, which is working on publishing a study about how such a program benefits both veterans and the dogs.

He estimated about 40 veterans have participated in the program since it began a year ago. Participants come and go as their time and needs allow, but recently, there has been a steady group of about eight that has just been bolstered by the addition of nearly a dozen who signed on for training. They were intrigued by a recent program Dog Tags presented for the 277th Quarter-Master Co., U.S. Army Reserves, at the Niagara Falls Air Base.

The group gains new participants through such programs, as well as through referrals from the Department of Veterans Affairs, student/veterans offices at area colleges, and community programs like the recent SPCA Holiday Party at the Elk Lodge in Niagara Falls.

Anyone interested in learning more may call the SPCA Niagara at 731-4368 or visit the Dog Tags Niagara Facebook page.