Closing the Service Dog Gap for Veterans
Discover how Capital One volunteers train service dogs to support veterans, transform lives and heal wounds
November 15, 2023
For 18 months, Jason Haag rarely left his basement. That’s how tremendously difficult the transition to civilian life was after serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Once a Marine Corps captain, Haag was forced into medical retirement long before he was mentally ready to leave the military. “I planned to make this my career—when I got out, I was devastated,” he recalls.
Struggling with depression and sustained physical trauma, Haag tried every solution at his disposal: pain medications, group therapy, acupuncture, you name it. But it was a neighbor and fellow veteran who eventually suggested Haag apply for a service dog.
“I wasn’t a dog guy,” Haag said. “But when I got a German Shepherd named Axel, everything changed."
The service dog gap
Today, nearly 30% of veterans like Haag face physical and psychological disabilities because of their war zone experiences. But while research shows that service dogs dramatically reduce the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), military sexual trauma (MST) and suicidal behaviors, only 1% of veterans seeking a service dog receive one each year.
That’s because raising a service dog is a numbers game: Nearly 70% of canine candidates never graduate from training, which takes two to three years of intensive instruction and socialization. And by the time a dog is matched with a veteran, organizations have spent upwards of $40,000.
Faced with these realities, service dog organizations like Patriot Paws, Leashes of Valor and Paws of War rely on a myriad of companies and individuals to volunteer, raise awareness and financially contribute to ensure high-quality service dogs can be raised, trained and placed with veterans at no cost to them – a role Capital One has helped filled for more than seven years.
“Capital One values veterans’ unique skills and experience, which is why we hire former military and support organizations that similarly support them,” says Mike Long, Managing Vice President of Product Management at Capital One. Mike is also the Accountable Executive of Capital One’s Military Business Resource Group, Salute — a business resource group (BRG) that supports veterans. “Salute is helping to bridge the gap between a real need in the veteran community and the intensive effort it takes to provide a service animal.”
It takes a village to raise a dog
It all starts with the pick of the litter.
“We rescue dogs and place them with Veterans and first responders who suffer from PTSD and TBI," says Robert Misseri, President of Paws of War.
From there, socialization is critical to ensuring dogs are adaptable and poised in every situation they might face with a veteran. In this, Capital One’s Dallas-Fort Worth team plays a key role. Given the region’s strong veteran presence – nearly 400,000 residents—employees regularly volunteer as puppy raisers with Patriot Paws as a way to support the local community. Volunteers train dogs for three months in their homes while exposing them to different environments—kids’ birthday parties, public transportation, even time in the Capital One office.
“Living with our volunteers allows these puppies to experience what life might be like with a veteran,” says Terri Stringer, Assistant Executive Director with Patriot Paws. “It also gives the dogs a whole string of Capital One fans cheering them on throughout the rest of their training.”
After the socialization phase, every dog is trained to assist with physical disabilities, from alerting hard-of-hearing individuals to important sounds, to performing simple household tasks, like turning on the lights or retrieving items.
The third and final step before graduation is psychiatric training. Here, dogs are tailor-trained to meet the unique psychological needs of the veteran they’ll serve. This can include distracting veterans during flashbacks, reminding them to take their medicine, or even applying physical pressure during a panic attack to help them calm down.
"We never breed our animals," Says Misseri. "All our animals are rescues and are matched with veterans and first responders to assist them in the best way possible. All the dogs are trained with their handler from the beginning, so they build an unbreakable bond.”
To help offset the cost of training, Salute dedicates a portion of its budget each year to all three organizations. Capital One sponsors and names a Patriot Paws dog each year, helps Paws of War purchase vaccines, microchips and other resources for their mobile Vet to Vet clinic, and matches employee volunteer hours with financial contributions for Leashes of Valor — an organization Haag founded in 2017.
“Collaborating with a company the size and magnitude of Capital One is huge,” Haag said.
After getting paired with Axel in 2012, Haag began to recognize and work through his PTSD symptoms. The progress was profound. It allowed him to resume normal activities, such as quick trips to the gas station or even hikes – with his faithful service dog. Today, he credits Axel with giving him a new career and a purpose: providing as many service dogs as he can to wounded and disabled veterans.
“Axel saved my life, Haag said. “He gave me the strength to embrace the world around me, and now his paw prints are on everything we do.”