Heroes: Dogs bring help and healing

8:33 PM, Nov 25, 2011   |    comments
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Riverview, Florida -- They serve our country and often put their lives on the line, but our veterans don't always have an easy time when they return home.

Jeff Redford didn't have problems until decades after serving in Vietnam.  While he was there, he was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange. He says it caused him to lose his eyesight.

"I had about three-quarters of my sight," said Redford. "And now I've got five percent."

Now all Redford sees is shadows. Eventually, even those will disappear.

Initially, he went into a deep depression. He even considered suicide.  But a big, black labrador changed all that.

Don is Redford's guide dog. They've been together for about a year. Jeff wasn't always convinced he needed one.

"To be truthful to you, I didn't want one," said Redford. "I used a cane for seven or eight years. Me and the cane got along just fine."

But his family and employees at a blind rehab center convinced him to give a guide dog a try.

"Fortunately, Don and I got along right from the start. He's a big dog and I'm not a small guy. So we just hit it off."

Jeff and Don were paired up at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, through its Paws for Patriots program.

Their dogs are trained from a young age to give veterans the freedom they may not have when they return home.  And it's not only guide dogs for the visually impaired.  Their veterans assistance dogs help vets suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

"So many vets return from combat and they just can't turn that switch off," said trainer Judy Bordignon.  "They're in combat mode, their in readiness mode to defend and protect. When they return home, they just can't turn that off and return to a normal civilian life."

Those veterans may have trouble sleeping at night or feel anxious in public, fearing someone will come up behind them. The dogs are trained to serve as a buffer, lookout or alert signal. They are taught to block their owner from others, to protect the vet's personal space and watch for people coming from behind. They also learn to hug to ease anxiety.

"We're helping to defend the people who have defended us.  It's a great feeling," said Bordignon.

"It's just like living in a war zone," said veteran Jeff Redford. "You have to trust the guy next to you and you have to believe in him.  And that's just like with this guide dog. I have to believe in him."

Southeastern Guide Dogs gets no government funding. It operates completely on donations. 

Click here if you're interested in contributing or if you know someone who would be a candidate for the Paws for Patriots program.

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