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Heroes, Horses & Hounds: Interview with Colleen Campbell

A Stray Toon in honor of Service Animals

One day Colleen Campbell, who has trained horses to ride for twenty years, started thinking: Why not take dogs and horses that otherwise would be euthanized and retrain them for service to help people live fuller lives? With a goal of taking tragedies and turning them into opportunities, her organization Heroes, Horses & Hounds was born.

When Colleen put together an outline of the business and formed a plan to get it started, she had the knowledge to teach horses to do service-related tasks. Her vision only lacked a person with experience training dogs as service animals. That is when Colleen met Jessica Mattson, a service dog trainer of twenty years. Jess embraced the Heroes mission and the pair has been working together for two years.

When you hear the words Service Dog, you may picture a Labrador retriever wearing a vest, but Colleen says that a dog of any breed, given the right disposition and ability, can learn to become a service animal. The Heroes, Horses & Hounds organization has connections with rescue groups that keep an eye out for dogs that have characteristics to be successful service animals. When a dog with the potential for service is identified, Jess Mattson will do an evaluation before bringing it into training. For horses, Mrs. Campbell maintains contact with a horse transporter that has connections in the slaughter-house auction industry. The transporter sends Colleen videos of horses that may be suitable.

Rescues in Service

In the U.S. 1.4 million dogs are euthanized each year. Of those, Colleen says a large percentage probably have the necessary traits to become service animals. On top of that she says that rescue dogs tend to be more protective of, and more loyal, sensitive, and attuned to the human that saved them than dogs that do not come from rescue situations. Having worked many years with dogs and humans Colleen says, “We have noticed that having a dog that came from a troubled past and matching it with somebody who has a troubled past, there is a deeper connection.”

Rescued horses also provide therapeutic benefits to human companions. When working with a horse that has suffered mistreatment, Colleen says that stages of recovery become evident. As the horse slowly comes to trust humans, people working with the horse see it coming around and changing, mirroring a person’s own slow recovery from trauma. Witnessing this transformation offers a very powerful message of hope for a person who has suffered.

According to Colleen, many people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder tend to feel broken and learning to manage symptoms can be a long and difficult road. Some symptoms that result from trauma can include being easily startled, flashbacks, feeling nervous in crowds, poor sleep, and feeling angry, sad, and anxious. The anxiety can be crippling: a person may stop leaving the house for fear of having a panic attack, leading them to avoid doing daily tasks and imprisoning them in a shrinking world.

As a person prepares to receive a service dog, he or she learns that the symptoms of PTSD are a natural result of having gone through a traumatic experience. The body and the mind protect itself by storing the traumatic memories in a different manner than more mundane memories. Symptoms of PTSD may never disappear, but may become less intense. With the help of a therapist, a person can learn to manage those symptoms and a service animal becomes a partner in that endeavor.

The Training

Trained to assist people who suffer from severe bouts of anxiety, dogs are taught to recognize and react to physical signs such as a closed fist. In response a service dog learns to nudge the fist with their nose and lean on the person to help draw them out of an anxious state. In leaning, the dog’s weight helps to make an anxious person feel more grounded and secure, giving them a chance to breathe and become calm. Along with physical signs, service dogs in training begin to sense chemical changes in their human leading to even quicker responses. To help prevent the onset of anxiety in a public place a dog may walk in front of or behind their human to prevent other people from coming too close. Soldiers who return from conflict for example may become very anxious when someone walks up on them from behind. With a dog watching their six, returned soldiers can feel more at ease outside the home.

To train a dog to do this type of work is a long and not inexpensive process. In fact Colleen says that other organizations generally charge between $22,000 and $50,000 for one trained service dog! Heroes, Horses & Hounds charges $9,500, and for that amount offers specialized training and life-time support to each client. Even though this reduced price is a terrific value, it is still a large hurdle for most folks. “Even with fundraising and payment plans, it is still hard for people to get there,” she says. To help more people afford the cost of a service dog, Colleen is hoping therapists in the area may provide research documenting changes in clients before having a service dog and after receiving one. Important changes to note might be the amount of hospital visits they had before and after, the amount of medication they needed before versus after. Colleen is also interested in hearing from students and colleges that may be doing research to show the cost-effectiveness of having a service dog. With the research, Colleen may be able to work with insurance companies to get them to cover more of the cost of a dog.

The Application Process

When a person applies to Heroes for a service animal, it is important to note what specific challenges he or she is facing. For example: Does the person have crowd anxiety? Is he or she afraid to go out of their apartment alone? Lifestyle is also very much taken into account: Is the person very active or more sedentary? In choosing a dog to mold into a service dog, it is important to find one that is calm and is not easily ruffled. For instance, it is important to note a dog’s reaction to a surprise situation like when someone opens an umbrella or makes a loud noise. If the dog’s focus is thrown off, is it able to recover? Upon finding a dog that matches a human’s needs and lifestyle, Heroes trains the dog for about three months before bringing the human into the equation. Once the introduction happens between dog and human applicant, the remainder of the dog’s training occurs with their person. Colleen notes that the process with horses is very similar.

What’s next?

In the spring of 2018, the plan is for Heroes, Horses & Hounds to move into a 6.5 acre farm in Sunderland, MA. A lot of preparation will be necessary before the move can be completed. Fencing will have to be installed, a riding ring will need to be constructed, and the site needs a barn. To accomplish all that needs to be done, Colleen and Jessica hope that they will be able to count on help from volunteers, especially anyone with construction, plumbing, electrical, and even solar know-how. They are also open to connecting with businesses that may want to sponsor part of this project.

Currently Heroes, Horses & Hounds mainly serves Western Massachusetts but Colleen Campbell and Jessica Mattson have exciting plans and are hoping to grow to a nation-wide program in the next five years!

Please watch the Heroes, Horses & Hounds facebook page for updates and for opportunities to assist. In-depth information can also be found on their website.

Puppy Love Gala

On February 17, 2018 Heroes, Horses & Hounds will be hosting the Puppy Love Gala at the Crestview Country Club in Agawam, MA. It should be a great event!

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