Larry Smith had an idea for what he would do with his time once he retired from the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Contracts this fall. He said, “I was a State of Iowa employee for 11 years with the Iowa Air National Guard Civil Engineering Squadron, so I knew I wanted to do something to help our wounded service members. I did a little research and found an organization called Puppy Jake Foundation. The group equips volunteers to train service dogs for veterans.”
The mission of Puppy Jake Foundation is “to improve the physical and emotional well-being of wounded military veterans through well-bred, socialized, and professionally trained service dogs.”
The foundation provides service dogs to wounded American military veterans at no cost to them. These dogs help improve function, increase mobility, and provide companionship for wounded veterans. The foundation is funded by donations that go to pay for the training, health care, and food supply for the service dogs.
In April 2016, Smith applied for the program. Prospective Puppy Jake participants must complete an interview, an in-home visit, and a two-week training course. His training was completed and he was set to sit back and wait for a puppy to train once he had finished his nine-year career at the Iowa DOT.
But you know what they say about the best laid-plans. In early April, Smith received a call from Puppy Jake Foundation. There was a puppy in the area ready to be fostered, but the person she had been assigned to wasn’t able to take her. They asked if Smith could step up a little earlier than planned.
Since Puppy Jake foster parents are required to be with the puppy 24/7 for the next two years, Smith was a little hesitant, but he approached his office director at the time, Wes Musgrove, and division director Mitch Dillavou, about the opportunity and the need for the puppy to come to work with him.
“They were great,” he said, “We worked out the details and soon a sweet little female black lab named Benji, came to live with Smith and his wife, Kathy, a nurse at Blank Children’s Clinic in Des Moines.
He said, “She’s the most laid-back puppy, but it’s a lot like having a 3-year-old in the house again. The first night she ran all over our house, but then went right to her crate and slept all night. During the day at work she is crated underneath my desk and only comes out for brief walks and a minute or two of training and play time.”
The first year Benji’s training will focus on basic obedience. Smith says they will attend class once a week and after she has the basics down, they will find out who will be her eventual owner and start training her to meet the specific needs of that wounded warrior.
“Already she loves to work,” said Smith. “When she has her red vest on, she knows that’s work time. Over the course of her training, she will go everywhere I go, on trains, airplanes, and to all types of events. She needs to be used to every type of environment. Since she’s a puppy, it’s difficult for some people to understand that it isn’t OK to just come up and play with her, but she needs to learn to have 100 percent of her attention on me any time she’s working. She’ll need that focus when she goes to her final owner. That person will be relying on her.”
But Smith says when her service vest comes off, Benji knows it’s time to play. She has met the Smith’s two grown sons and their families, including the four grandkids. “She’s a great pup and I’m looking forward to the time when she will be working for one of our military veterans. That’s the $1 million pay off, to see how much having a service dog can change the life of a service member.”