In February 2020, California-based Operation Freedom Paws opened its first Canadian chapter on Vancouver Island. After more than two years of operations, the organization was finally able to host its first open house and showcase this summer.
The organization is dedicated to “empower[ing] veterans and individuals with disabilities to restore their freedom to live life” by connecting them with service dogs and training both the person and the dog as a “service dog team.”
The 48-week-long training program is free for anyone that their program caters to, and is entirely dependent on fundraising.
According to founder Barbara Ashmead the cost to provide programming for one dog-owner duo is about $12,000.
Since opening in February 2020, 21 people and their dogs have graduated from the program in Fanny Bay.
During the course — which participants are welcome to complete at their own pace — service dog teams are taught to care for one another.
The first several weeks are foundational knowledge as the duo learns basic commands and instructions. However, in later weeks, the dog in particular formally learns to do many of the comforting tasks that they already do.
“Dogs that are part of our program are already affectionate and caring,” said Ashmead.
In the advanced stages of the courses, the dogs begin to recognize when their comforting tasks are needed.
Most of the dogs from the organization are rescues. Earlier this year, the organization welcomed six rescue dogs that were airlifted out of Afghanistan.
“It’s a beautiful partnership because the dog and the human get to heal together,” said Ashmead.
While Operation Freedom Paws does offer pairing services, interested applicants with their own service animal are still welcome to apply.