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Support for veterans found in 'man's best friend'

South Dakota Service Dogs (SDSD)
South Dakota Service Dogs (SDSD)

Service dogs benefit a large demographic of people across the country with varying needs. For veterans and first responders, service dogs can help lower symptoms of PTSD, enhance their quality of life, and for some, reduce the need for medications.

Tony Russell is the executive director of South Dakota Service Dogs (SDSD). Russell started the non-profit in 2021 to serve veterans and first responders across the state.

Since its inception, SDSD has already received 200 veteran applications. Currently, there are 70 active therapy dogs trained by SDSD living and serving veterans across the state.

What makes Russell’s operation unique is his ability to work directly with and help train veterans through what’s called a community model.

“Having a dog provided at a young age and the veteran involved in the training process allows us to minimize the depressive state that happens when a veteran loses a service dog," said Russell. "So instead of having to get put back on a long waiting list for a one-to-two-year time frame, the veteran is allowed to mourn the loss of their dog for a short window but then turn around and start working with a new service dog and start the training process over. Instead of going into a reclusive depressive state which can be detrimental to their health.”

Russell said that most of the dogs his organization receives are donations from reputable breeders from across the state.

Not all veterans or first responders fit the mold of a community-based approach. In emergency situations, Russell said his organization uses what is called the rapid rescue program.

“We do have a handful of dogs that we will go down to the local humane societies and we will evaluate them and run them through a series of tests and we will provide them to veterans who are in a crisis type of situation and need to get a dog right now and don’t have the time or mental capacity at that moment to raise a dog of their own,” said Russell.

Providing the service dog free of charge is only one aspect of Russell’s operation.

SDSD also provides certified therapy dog trainers as resources for veterans who have access to weekly training sessions.

The program is funded solely through donations which Russell said is the largest hurdle to overcome.

“I think right now the big challenge is funding for dogs, for those veterans who need it. Then making sure we continue to raise awareness though, that’s always our biggest challenge, raising awareness. Then trying to prioritize the veterans who or individuals who need the service dogs,” said Russell.

If a service dog reaches retirement age, SDSD also has applications to provide a retirement home for the dog to enjoy the rest of their days, “just being a dog.”

Evan Walton is an SDPB reporter based in Sioux Falls. Evan holds a Master’s in English Literature from Southern New Hampshire University and was honorably discharged from the United States Army in 2015, where he served for five years as an infantryman.