Melissa Caposello Trains Dogs and Changes Lives of Disabled Veterans
Jan 19, 2016 11:37AM
Melissa Caposello has been involved with animals as far back as she can remember. “I always knew I wanted to do something more for animals and people who needed help,” says the 40-year-old. “Animals have such an amazing ability to reach people on a level that humans are just not capable of doing.”
So 14 years ago she started the DFW Canine Rescue & Service Dogs, a 501c3 non-profit organization. They take shelter dogs and train them for veterans suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and other physical disabilities. It has been a labor of love for Caposello, who is the face of the organization. She spends her days meeting with veterans, searching for service dogs and handling an assortment of managerial duties required to keep the organization going. Interestingly, she suffers from muscular dystrophy and has her own service dog.
She says she’s pleased with the organization’s purpose and success and has “seen veterans completely do a 180 and a dog on death row get a new lease on life!”
We caught up with Caposello just before Christmas and asked her to tell us more about the DFW Canine Rescue & Service Dogs.
Tell us about the DFW Canine Rescue & Service Dogs: We train service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and mobility issues. We teach the dogs to help calm a veteran having a PTSD episode, how to assist in opening doors or drawers as well as walking and a number of other things. We take shelter dogs and train them as “battle buddies” for our veterans. Sometimes we are even able to train their personal dogs if they already have one and it passes our evaluation.
Who is involved in operating the organization? Two people right now, our master trainer, Carrie Caposello and myself. We are also bringing Michael Ortega on board. He’s a marine combat vet who has been a part of our program and wanted to give back. He will be studying under Carrie and learning how to train service dogs. He will also be heading our support group program.
How did this all get started? I had started our dog rescue back in 2001. Over the years Carrie had always trained dogs for several disciplines from narcotic detection dogs to service dogs. When I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, the option of a service dog had come up. Carrie and I had thought a lot about service dogs and how we could do more. Our service dog program was born.
What does the organization mean to you? This is our life. These veterans gave their world to give us ours, now my world is their freedom.
What do you like most about it? That we are giving back to our veterans and helping dogs. One veteran told me, ‘We saved two things of trash that was thrown out.’ As I fought back my tears, the only thing I could say was ‘Another man’s trash is another man’s treasure and you, sir, are definitely my treasure.’
What can people learn from this? Don’t judge a book by its cover. That old homeless man or rough gray-haired biker guy might have just saved 100 people in the war. We need to help our veterans where other programs fall short. PTSD and TBI are very serious and not everyone knows how or where to get help.
Tell us about the training. At the present we have one trainer and Carrie is training Michael Ortega, our newest grad. Next year, we are looking at bringing on two more. Carrie is training 3 to 4 days per week and is stretched pretty thin. She has trained dogs for over 20 years and has competed with the dogs she trained in showing AKC obedience and trained and worked contraband drug detection dogs. She is a valuable asset to our organization.
What does it cost to train a dog? $20,000 per dog. The service dog vest is provided free through one of our partners. If a mobility brace is needed those braces are $699. Neither insurance nor the VA covers service dogs, gear, vet care or food. We don’t charge our veterans for any of this.
Is it OK to pet service dogs? Please always ask to pet a service dog. If you see a service dog just keep walking and ignore the service dog. He’s on the job and hard at work. If you stop to speak to the owner, continue to ignore the dog. I know it’s very hard to not make cute noises, but this can potentially pull the dog’s attention away from the owner causing a serious issue or harm for them. The service dog may not look like they are working but they are. They are listening, smelling, feeling and watching for subtle clues from their owner. Remember, service dogs are not pets they are used just like a person uses a wheelchair.
How have things changed over time for the organization? We are continually evolving our program to fit each individual veteran and their needs. We recently needed a wheelchair ramp and Ken McKnight Air Conditioning in Mansfield stepped up and answered our call and donated it. One of our main goals is to have a wheelchair van or SUV donated. Some of our veterans do not drive or are unable to drive so we need to go get them for training. We need to be able to get them out with the dog in public and work with them one-on-one. Right now we do not have that capability.
What goals and objectives are there for the organization? Everyday 22 veterans commit suicide, that is 22 too many. Our goal is to help even just one of these veterans.
Are there paid and volunteered positions? No one is paid. We are in great need of donations and volunteers.
So how do you fund the organization? We are basically funding this program out of our own pocket right now by our photography business, Caposello Photography. We also get donations but not near enough to cover even one dog. Sammons Enterprises sponsored one of our lucky dogs this year. And Ken McKnight AC donated our wheelchair ramp.
How are you raising awareness of the organization and those it serves? We participate in festivals and any and all events we can attend. We also do quite a bit of online networking and utilize Facebook and other social media.
What’s a typical day like for you? What we like to call controlled chaos! We start early “break” (potty) and feed dogs, after that it’s time to catch up on emails and phone calls. Then off to trainings scheduled for the day. We fit in our photography shoots in between training sessions, rotations of dogs and veterans. Most days we skip lunch and dinner and settle for “linner” at 3:00 pm. Carrie does most of the running, because of my muscular dystrophy.
Why is the organization so important? We are giving veterans and dogs a new lease on life. The dogs have such a profound ability to reach the veterans in ways that humans will never be able to. It is an unspoken response to our hearts that we may or may not ever understand.
Has the program faced challenges or obstacles? One of our major issues right now is we are running with one vehicle, a 2005, on its last leg. She has over 300,000 miles and if our car stops, this program is dead in the water...and our veterans are stuck. That makes me not sleep at night. When we stopped being a traditional dog rescue and implemented our service dog program donations stopped by 90 percent and this was very disheartening. It was as if everyone wanted to save a dog but no one wanted to help a veteran.
Anything else we should know? This is an amazing program and if you need help, please get it anywhere you can. Just reach out to someone. If we can’t help you, we will help find someone who can help you. This 22 a day has got to end!
What are your expectations for the next 5 years? We would like to have a wheelchair van/SUV. Have our support group up and running. Open an actual training facility where we can train in all weather conditions. Right now we train at Oliver Nature Park and we have to postpone training if it is raining, flooded or too cold/hot.
What’s your best memory of being involved with the organization? One of our veterans could not get focused on what the trainer was trying to do, so she refocused him. She said, ‘Tell me about your gun.’ He fired off about his gun so fast, she said, ‘again.’ He repeated. Then she asked him to do the drill. He did it beautifully. The point was that he needed her to get him to focus on something that he was already confident in and not something that made him nervous. Once his confidence level was up, he did great. It is amazing how she can relate to the veterans and ground and redirect them. It was all those little moments that gave way to the best memory when that beautiful, curly blonde-haired 4-year-old girl hugged her daddy at the end of graduation!How can someone get involved with the organization? We are in great need of donations and companies to sponsor our veteran’s battle buddies training. If you would like to volunteer, sponsor or donate please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website http://www.dfwcaninesd.com/ or call 682-304-4310.
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