Circle of Change Veteran Dog Program

Circle of Change: "Veterans Helping Dogs Helping Veterans"

The Community Foundation of Northern Illinois (CFNIL) has awarded Circle of Change a $10,000 Community Grant, supported by the Dr. Louis & Violet Rubin Fund. The grant will support Veteran Dog Program classes, which are offered in both Rockford and Davis Junction. The grant, which is one of twelve made in the Human Services Focus Area, perfectly reflects the specific intent of Human Service Focus Area grants: to serve the basic needs of individuals and families, and to provide services to persons with disabilities, especially activities that promote inclusion. CFNIL staff had the opportunity to visit a Veteran Dog Program class and see firsthand the good work that is being accomplished.

At first glance, a Circle of Change Veteran Dog Program class may seem like a perfectly normal dog training class. But stay a little longer and it becomes apparent something different -- something special -- is happening here. The rhythm of the class is slower and more relaxed that you might expect, with breaks between exercises when the trainer speaks to the humans in the room at length; sometimes the dogs are rotated among the human participants; a large group of past participants and other guests watch from the perimeter of the room, sharing stories, pictures of their own dogs, and commenting on the progress of both dog AND human class participants. The atmosphere, regardless of the number of dogs barking or "misbehaving", is calm and supportive. 

Circle of Change Veterans Dog Program, pairs veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues with dogs who have also experienced trauma. In Rockford, the program meets weekly at Dave’s Doggie Den where a certified dog trainer leads a small class of veterans and troubled dogs through training exercises meant to build trust, confidence and friendship between the animals and veterans. Some of the veterans begin a class withdrawn, non-communicative, anxious; the dogs, specifically selected for this program by the trainers from their client bases, have many of the same characteristics. By focusing on the behavior problems of the dogs and empowering the veterans to address those behaviors, vets build the skills and confidence to control and redirect the dogs. Over time, the same skills and confidence begin to impact the vets themselves.

Circle of Change Executive Director Steven Haight shared a specific story of a veteran participant within the grant application: "[This] veteran could not make eye contact or communicate when he first came into the program. Bit by bit he began to open up as he worked with the dogs. One day he proclaimed to the class, 'When I work with the dogs I can feel my heart again'." The power of the bond that is developed between veterans and dogs is bringing healing and hope to vets, week after week. CFNIL is proud to support Circle of Change as they work to accomplish their unique mission: Veterans Helping Dogs Helping Veterans. 

View more photos and videos from CFNIL's visit to the Veteran Dog Program class.

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