Volunteers Prepare Puppies for Important Mission: Helping Vets

One local dog program is having big impacts—for combat veterans and volunteer trainers alike.

Dulles-based Veterans Moving Forward provides service dogs and canine therapy to veterans with physical and mental health challenges, all at no cost to the veterans. With the help of a small army of volunteers, the organization aims to make a meaningful difference in the lives of veterans, and increase their safety and independence within their homes and communities.

One of those volunteers is Jeanette Townsend, a 53-year-old Herndon resident, who is training her fourth puppy for the program.

Townsend got involved with Veterans Moving Forward after her family’s golden retriever passed away. With her kids headed off to college, she wasn’t ready to make a commitment a new family pet. But she did miss the patter of four legs around the house.

That void was filled with a 10-week-old puppy and a two-year commitment to train him up to be a dependable service dog. That was four dogs ago.

Today, Townsend is working with Albie, an English Cream Golden Retriever who is almost a year old.

The training involves both socialization and skills training, she said.

“Wherever you go, the dog goes,” Townsend said.

Jeanette Townsend with Albie, a puppy in training with Veterans Moving Forward.

And the training goes beyond sit, roll over and get the paper. For the service dogs, the duties are more complex, such as open the dresser drawer, pick out a pair of socks, close the drawer and deliver the socks. Dependably. Every time. That’s accomplished with a lot of rewards, positive reinforcement and practice—at home and at the organization’s training center on Mercure Circle near Dulles Airport.

As Albie gets to be 14-16 months old, they’ll begin matching him with a veteran. A review panel will assess the dog’s skills and the vet’s needs in making the assignment. That starts another round of training with the veteran included.

Is it hard saying goodbye to a well-trained dog? Not really.

“I know from the day I met that furry little puppy that he was going to go and change somebody’s life,” Townsend said. “I know that he is going to make a difference.”

She and the other trainers keep track of their dogs’ progress. “It’s like getting a letter home from your kid at camp.” She has seen dogs help rebuild veterans’ lives—mending family bonds, making community connections and putting smiles on faces that rarely showed them before.

Besides a love for dogs, what does it take to be a VMF puppy raiser?

The organization is looking for experience dog owners in the area who are between the ages of 35 and 65, in good physical condition, with an established career or recently retired, with older or no children at home. Training experience is a plus, but not required.

If you might be interested, Towsend recommended a visit to the training center.

“Come see what we do,” she said. “if nothing else, come play with the puppies.”

To find out more, go to vetsfwd.org.