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Veterans Health Administration

Two Needs – One Great Solution

black dog laying in the grass

Gabe is just one of the puppies being trained by homeless Veterans.

“I am so glad that I stuck it out…”

Man kneeling by a black puppy in a park

Arnold Calloway and his puppy, Grace

Arnold Calloway is a Veteran on a mission. His mission is to make Grace, his puppy, the best in the business. As Grace's Handler, it is Arnold’s job to prepare her for a career in ordnance detection.

He talks about her like a proud parent. “Grace is an English Labrador Retriever bred for her scenting ability. Her favorite toy is her rope. She loves to chew on her rope and shake it around. I think she loves every string.

“I am socializing Grace so she is not afraid of people, other dogs, noises, obstacles, or situations so she can be effective in her future detection work.”

When asked about the most rewarding aspect of his work with Grace, Arnold says, “Seeing Grace grow, perform, and improve in her training. It gives me a sense of accomplishment that is very rewarding. I have had Grace since she was a puppy, so seeing her excel at what she does is a wonderful feeling.”

And what does he get out of it?

“Looking back, I am so glad that I stuck it out in this program. There were times that I really struggled and felt overwhelmed but I realize how much I have grown from this experience.”

five people in orange shirts stand with puppies in a park

(L-to-R) Arnold Calloway, Thomas Johnson, Donna Vose, Larry Coney
Kneeling in Front – Program Founder Shane Lackey

Homeless Veterans need an opportunity to rejoin society and relearn competence and responsibility.

America needs explosive detecting canines to help fight terrorism.

At the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Ga., the two needs have come together in a one-of-a-kind program that will make a positive difference in the lives of homeless Veterans, and provide Federal and private organizations worldwide with highly trained explosive detection dogs in the fight against crime and terrorism.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

— Shane Lackey, Army National Guard Veteran

The Vets are assigned a four-month-old puppy which they hand-raise, train and socialize in a carefully developed program until they reach “training age,” about 12 months old. The program strengthens and hones the traits and skills that are important to the puppies’ future work.

Four puppies, Gidget, Gabe, Grace, and Genni arrived at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in October 2010. As the puppies grow and gain discipline, the Veterans improve their social skills, social awareness, and confidence.

“I never would have dreamed an animal would help me succeed and give me a reason to look forward to another day,” explained one Veteran in the program. “I am more confident now than I have ever been in my whole life.”

The Detection Canine Development Program is designed to make a positive difference in the lives of homeless Veterans, primarily through a professionally-supported, one-to-one relationship with a dog. One Army Veteran with ten years of service, who has struggled with depression and addiction, provides a great outcome from the program: “Genni has been a godsend for me. She is better than any drug the VA can give me.”

The idea for the program came from Shane Lackey, a Georgia Army National Guard Veteran of Iraq (2006-07) who was helped through his post-traumatic stress disorder by his German shepherd, Doc. “Doc was my grounding rod. Helping me when the fog was thick. And I thought, why can’t other Vets benefit from working with these great animals?’

Lackey had noticed the prison systems training detection dogs and thought the same idea would work at the VA. How did he get the concept from just an idea to a working program? He smiles, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

He brought the idea to Carl Vinson VA Medical Center and “the folks there were very receptive. I just want to give the good results I’ve had to the next guy.”

Lackey is quick to add that his recovery has also been thanks to “a great supporting family. My wife and my two kids helped me to get where I am today.”

The project assists the Vets in achieving their highest potential as they grow to become confident, competent, responsible, and caring citizens, learning leadership and an honorable goal of continuing to provide service to their country.

Another homeless Veteran participating in the program, an Army Iraq War Veteran who has been fighting depression and post-traumatic stress disorder explains, “Gabe has helped me so much. When I get into a situation where I am uncomfortable, he pulls me out. I am so focused on him that I don’t realize that while I am taking care of him, he is taking care of me.”

The Detection Canine program also promotes community interaction, service to others, and relationship development.

According to program manager Angela Achee, Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist, “We always want our Veterans and community to know that we are providing innovative programs to reach out and support Veterans in need. We firmly believe in the inherent therapeutic value that working with animals brings and see this as an important benefit to our Veterans, community, and country.”

The proof of the value of the program is summed up by a homeless Marine Corps Veteran with a history of addiction: “Working with the people and the puppies in this program has changed my whole outlook on where, what, when and how I live the rest of my life. I have learned responsibility and how to approach problems and how to work to resolve them.”

The puppies are born at Auburn University’s Canine Detection Training Center at Fort McClellan where they return after their “preschool” days with the Veterans.

Established in 1989, the Canine Detection Research Institute is part of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. The Auburn program is the largest dedicated canine detection research program in the United States and its associated Canine Detection Training Center is one of the largest training programs outside the federal government.

The VA Detection Canine Development Program allows homeless Veterans to continue to serve their country by training dogs that will go on to work in a variety of Federal and private organizations in ordnance detection, foreign and domestic, therefore contributing in a positive way to protect U.S. citizens from terrorism.