South Valley non-profit pairing vets with service dogs-for free

VISALIA, Calif. (KFSN) -- California Service Dog Academy's current mission is to train and provide service dogs to veterans at no cost.

Thanks to a grant from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the relatively new non-profit is doing just that.

Their Liberty Dogs Program has already benefitted at least 15 vets, and they hope to help many more in their second year of grant funding.

They've also started their own breeding program.

Lead trainer Rebecca Corso says veterans must apply for the program, and if selected, take a six-week course.

"It goes over everything from the laws regarding service dogs both state and federally to just taking care of a dog, to training a dog, to K9 behavior, as well as what to expect when you have a service dog," Corso said. "Because it's not as easy as people think it is, especially this day in age. You are to expect some confrontation, some harassment when you go out in public because unfortunately there's been a lot of fake service dogs in the last five to ten years and that causes a lot of problems for people who have legitimate dogs."

Once vets complete their course, they're paired with a dog and help train it to perform specific tasks.

Diva, a three-year-old Dutch Shepherd, is still in training with Iraq War veteran James Reitzel.

"We don't normally let the person pick the dog, but when James and Diva met each other, it was kind of love at first sight for both of them," Corso said.

Reitzel struggles with anxiety attacks on a near-daily basis.

But since getting Diva, he says he no longer needs his anxiety medication, his blood pressure has dropped, and he can go to the store on his own.

He also works for the non-profit part-time.

"Knowing that she's there in case something happens, in case I have a major anxiety attack or something like that, it provides a huge blanket of comfort," Reitzel said.

California Service Dog Academy uses positive reinforcement for its service dogs in training.

Reitzel says that approach has helped him be more patient with family members, including his son.

"Being only positive with her, it allows me to think for a second before I get mad, and go, 'Hey wait. Ok if I yell at him, he's just going to get more frustrated and closed off and get mad possibly and it's just going to make the whole problem worse.'"

Veterans interested in applying for the Liberty Dog Program can learn more at an informational meeting at the Visalia Veterans Memorial building on Wednesday night from 5 to 7 p.m.

For more information, you can check out their website or Facebook page.
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