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Superhero Spotlight: Paw and Stripes

In this ‘Superhero Spotlight’ post we are excited to highlight the efforts of Paws and Stripes, a non-profit based in Albuquerque that for ten years has been helping veterans cope with service-related trauma through animal-based therapy and mental health services.

Paws and Stripes offers a unique combination of services focused on supporting the mental health of veterans, while at the same time aiding in the rescue and training of dogs in need of homes and purpose. Their mission is one that resonates deeply with our own.

We had a call this week with Director of Development Iris Nolasco and Senior Trainer Amy Grace Rudd to learn more about Paws and Stripes’ services, their team, and their vision for growth in the coming years.

Director of Development Iris Narasco Senior Trainer Amy Grace Rudd

We learned a lot about who they are and how they operate, but above all, our suspicions that the Paws and Stripes team are real life, certified superheroes was confirmed! Let’s take a look at their outstanding efforts in the Superhero Spotlight.

About the Team and Their Mission

Paws and Stripes was founded in 2010 in Rio Rancho by Lindsey Kay. After researching organizations to help a veteran family member suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), Kay was unable to find an affordable option for service dogs for veterans.

Her recognition of this as a critical need for veterans, coupled with her passion for dogs and love of country, inspired her to found an organization that would provide service dogs at no cost to veterans. It has since expanded to offer mental health services as well.

Paws and Stripes graduated its first team of veterans and service dogs in 2010 through its flagship Veteran Service Dog Program. They have since graduated more than 100 veterans through the program, with 13 enrolled in the program currently.

In 2012, they added a mental health component to their program, offering weekly group meetings, individual counseling sessions, and counselors who are available 24/7 to field phone calls from veterans in crisis or at risk of suicide.

In 2020, these counselors provided more than 3,000 hours of counseling to veterans in the program.

In addition to staff counselors, some graduates of the program stay on as mentors to current enrollees, supporting them through times of stress or crisis. Mentors also help with training and group sessions.

Today, Paws and Stripes employs a team of twelve that works tirelessly to provide a comprehensive support network for the veterans they serve.

Together, they raise funds and handle the administrative duties that keeps their programs running; they find dogs that match the needs of their clients, and work in partnership with veterans to train them; they provide counseling and support that enables veterans to cope with the mental wounds of war and return to life as they may not be able to without the help of an organization such as this one.

“For everything we do, and with the small team that we have, I think it is pretty incredible,” Iris says. Speaking of what she feels their biggest success is, she adds, “I think it’s people being able to get back out into their community and engaging more with their families. Seeing people who graduate come out of their shells. You see changes in people, they’re a little more open to engaging with strangers.”

Amy Grace agreed. “They find a purpose too, I think, at the end. Which I think is amazing,” she says, adding, “For example, we had a graduate who graduated a couple years ago, and he came to a fundraiser recently, and he was telling me all about how he started his own organization to help veterans, and he’s trying to reach out to people. And he’s able to teach softball to his kids team now. He just feels like he’s been opened to a world of opportunities. It’s amazing to see when they come back and tell us that they feel they can go out and do things.”

Programs and Offerings

For a full description of programs and information on how to apply, please visit the Paws and Stripes website.

Service Dog Program

The flagship program that launched with Paws and Stripes in 2010 is the Service Dog Program, a co-training program that over the course of roughly twelve months helps disabled veterans find, train, and most importantly, form a team with a shelter-turned-service dog.

The trainers help to find a dog in one of their partner shelters that matches not only their specific criteria for a service dog but fits the needs of the individual as well. Once they identify the dog with which the veteran most bonds with, they begin training.

According to Senior Trainer Amy Grace, their training model is focused on positive reinforcement and teamwork training.

“It’s the veteran working with the dog to be a team out in public,” she says. “We really want all of our veterans going out with the mindset that they’re a team, facing the world and taking on all of its challenges.”

For veterans participating in the Service Dog Program, it’s important that they be near enough to Albuquerque to make 3-4 weekly in-house sessions, though the dog comes home with them right away.

Program components include group training classes, a workshop, individual sessions, as well as at least two mental health sessions a month. Participants also have access to group counseling sessions and to crisis counselors.

To apply, a veteran must also have three tasks that they need assistance with, as this is the requirement for training a service dog.

Companion Animal Program

For veterans interested in the therapeutic benefits of owning a pet but without a need for a service dog to complete specific tasks, the newer Companion Animal Program (CAP) offers the opportunity to acquire and train a dog as well as access to mental health services.

The CAP program, which was launched in January 2021, is a 12-week program that focuses on fostering a connection with a dog as a companion animal and the benefit of human-animal bonding.

As with the Service Dog Program, participants benefit from taking ownership of their animal’s training and form a relationship with a dog that can lessen feelings of isolation and provide a sense of being on a team to face the world’s challenges.

This can be especially critical during the pandemic, which Iris explains can be especially difficult with veterans who are struggling in isolation. Being in isolation and even mask wearing can retraumatize veterans suffering with PTSD, she explains.

But having a companion animal with them, as well as access to the Paws and Stripes community, can make all the difference.

Mental Health Component

Individual and group counseling sessions are built into the animal-focused programs, with at least two individual sessions provided per month (or more if they are interested) and weekly group workshops available to all participants.

Group sessions focus on a variety of topics and skills-based training, including PTSD management, de-escalation training, stress reduction, and suicide prevention.

(Stock photo - not an actual session)

As a response to the pandemic, when in-person sessions were impossible, Paws and Stripes began offering telehealth services. As a result, they saw a 0% attrition rate through the pandemic. While they are once again meeting in person, they plan to continue telehealth services and expand on this component for those unable to come into the center.

Visions for Growth

With all of their success, the team has dreams to keep expanding.

Regarding staff, they are hoping to hire additional mental health counselors and a third dog trainer so they can be of service to more people.

In 2022, they intend to focus on outreach and increasing engagement with Native American communities as well as open their services to families of veterans, including offering counseling to spouses and children of veterans.

“We also want to be able to provide support to family members, not just because they provide support to their veteran or service member, but to support their own needs,” Iris explains.

They also hope to acquire and train an in-house therapy dog that could attend counseling sessions. A nice furry friend in session can help bring a little more comfort, Iris says.

Challenges and Needs For Support

The pandemic has proved challenging for the group, who had to get creative in order to continue their training program (outdoors and at a distance) when meeting inside wasn’t an option. It was also an especially challenging time for the veterans.

As with any organization, additional funding is a key component to reaching their dreams of expansion of services. Currently, the majority of funding (60%) comes from individual donors, in addition to some private foundation contributions and in-house fundraising.

“All of our services are provided for free, but they are not cheap on the back-end,” Iris explains. Donations help to cover the cost of counselor and trainer salaries, as well as the adoption, care, and training of service and companion animals.

The organization received their first government grant this year and hope to continue receiving support through grants going forward.

In addition to funding, they are always looking for volunteers. While dog-related volunteer work is limited, Paws and Stripes is interested in volunteers to help organize and man their annual events.

These include Show Your Paws in Ink, a tattoo fundraiser that supports local tattoo shops while raising money for the organization, and the Celebration of Heroes Gala, which includes a dinner and an auction as well as serving as the official graduation ceremony for the Service Dog Program. This year’s Gala will be held on April 30.

Lastly, they hope to form a network of short-term foster families who could help house dogs while they are awaiting their new homes with participant veterans or even providing support for veterans who are in need of temporary housing.

Supporting Paws and Stripes

We don’t have to say it again, but we will: The Paws and Stripes team are superheroes of the highest degree, and we are so grateful for their efforts. If you’re as impressed with their work as we are and would like to support them, head to their Support Page for ways to contribute.

Consider donating or volunteering, or if you have the space and time, become one of their first foster homes for pets and vets in transition.

Thanks to a matching grant from the Carl C. and Marie Jo Anderson Foundation, all donations up to $25 thousand will be matched from now until December 31st!

To learn more about Paws and Stripes and to show your support online, check out their website and social media:

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