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Pet Tales: Foster families needed for veterans' service dogs

German shepherds Beau and TJ are well-mannered house guests. Delivered to homes in Murrysville and Oakdale less than two weeks ago, both dogs have won the hearts of their foster families. They cheerfully obey every command or request, but they are also playful and affectionate.

Both dogs were bred by Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc. to be partners with military veterans and other people with physical and mental disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder. But it takes a lot of people to raise and train these dogs, and foster families are part of the journey.

Beau, 2, lives with Mary Lou and Bob Ploskunak in Murrysville. TJ, 11 months, is with Jim and Vicki Rodgers in Oakdale.

Since 2009, Guardian Angels dogs have been raised and trained in Williston, Fla. Last year, the organization purchased land in Washington County to build a training facility here because local organizations and companies raised over $1 million to cover the training of 40 dogs currently working in the Pittsburgh area. 


Carol Borden, founder and CEO, is now seeking local foster families. She not looking for puppy raisers. She’s looking for people who will foster young adult dogs that already have had quite a bit of training. The fostering is short term — generally two to eight weeks.  

A local trainer, Joanne Werner of New Eagle, works with the dogs and foster families, teaching them to reinforce the training the dogs have already received. In normal times, people and their foster dogs would attend weekly training classes at Lucky Paws Pet Resort in Beaver County. Owner/operator Gretchen Fieser has donated training space, but it can’t be used because of coronavirus shutdowns. 


“I’m just really excited to help this wonderful organization,” said Ms. Fieser, who worked for many years at Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.


“Beau really is a wonderful dog. It’s unbelievable how good he is,” Mrs. Ploskunak said. “He follows us everywhere. If you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, he follows you there, too.”


Beau and the other dogs are trained to never leave the side of a partner, who may have diabetes, sleep apnea, seizures or traumatic brain injury. Dogs partnered with people with diabetes will wake them if their blood sugar is too high or too low.


Mrs. Ploskunak said she and her husband are sheltering in place, “so this seemed like a good time to do this.”  


The couple have five children, and three sons and a daughter have served in the military. After six deployments in war zones, all returned home safely, and their parents have become active in groups that support veterans. They have attended local fundraisers for Guardian Angels service dogs by PNC Bank and Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans. 


“Soldiers come back, but when they come back many are different,” Mrs. Ploskunak said. “To see veterans with service dogs is such a joy. The dogs really work.” 


In Oakdale, TJ has charmed Jim and Vicki Rodgers.


“She’s still a puppy at 11 months, but she already has so much more training than a regular dog,” Mr. Rodgers said. “She loves to follow us around, and she loves to play ball. She is such a doll.”


TJ would like to play with Roxy, the family’s 12-year-old cockapoo, Mr. Rodgers said. “Roxy and TJ get along well, but Roxy doesn’t want to play.” 


The couple had an unusual introduction to the foster program during a Christmas visit from their daughter, Megan. When they picked her up, they were surprised to see she was accompanied by a German shepherd named Button. Megan Rodgers is in the apprentice training program at Guardian Angels, and Button was a well-behaved house guest. So her parents applied for a foster dog, and they were approved.


TJ came to the Rodgers house from the State Correctional Institute at Mercer, where she lived with an inmate. Due to the coronavirus, inmates are in lockdown in their cells, and the dogs are taken outside only for very brief potty breaks and limited exercise, Ms. Borden said. Four Guardian Angels dogs are still in the prison. Ms. Borden expects TJ will stay two weeks with her foster family before being swapped out with one of the other prison dogs who needs a break.


The foster process is currently stalled because of coronavirus shutdowns, Ms. Borden said. Twenty fully trained dogs, including five who will be partners for Pennsylvania residents, are stranded in Florida. The dogs were ready to join their partners when the shutdowns were imposed.


Eighty other dogs still live there and are being trained, but no more puppies can be bred and no more shelter dogs can be taken in until the 20 trained dogs can leave. 

“It is heart-breaking. People have waited so long for these dogs,” Ms. Borden said. A car dealer has volunteered to provide a van when the dogs can travel.


It costs about $25,000 to raise and train each of the dogs for 18-24 months. Recipients pay nothing. All costs are covered by donations.  


Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064 or at PG Pets on Facebook.

First Published May 1, 2020, 8:00am




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