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History of Courage Service Dogs

Courage Service Dogs was founded by Lisa Burkett in 2013. Lisa's personal experiences of trauma since childhood provide a distinctive viewpoint on the treatment of complex mental health problems. Over the years, Lisa sought many forms of mental health treatment including, medication, individual therapy, group therapy and equine therapy. After discovering an organization that trained service dogs to assist those with PTSD and other mental health conditions. She acquired her personal service dog, Bella, in 2010. Bella had received extensive training in trauma tasks, developing unique skills to manage PTSD symptoms. With Bella by her side, she was able to progress through her life with increasing confidence and independence.

After having such a positive experience with her own dog, Bella, Lisa founded Courage Service Dogs to provide the same type of assistance to others.

Initial Structure: 2013-2017

The initial structure of CSD was as a recipient program. We wanted to remove the barriers that those struggling with PTSD, trauma experience and other mental health conditions face. Our goals included:

  1. Provide PTSD service dogs to first responders and veterans who acquired PTSD while serving our country and communities

  2. To maintain high quality, the program would be kept small.

  3. Provide a comprehensive program that includes a team approach with health care professionals, co-workers and the community

  4. Provide dogs at no cost to recipients – including food, vet bills and necessary supplies – to make certain expense is not a prohibitive barrier to a qualified recipient

Restructure to a Mental Health Clinic Model: 2016

After training several dogs for our recipient program, we realized that providing individuals with a personal service dog would not be the best structure for our organization. The larger service dog organizations in the area had begun to establish their own PTSD service dog programs, which we saw as a better option for those wishing to acquire a personal service dog. As a small organization, we realized we would only be able to donate 1-2 dogs per year to a permanent recipient.

 

In 2016, we created the Service Dog Assisted Therapy Program to help meet our goals through animal-assisted therapy. We shifted our focus to assisting first responders after discovering other organizations providing PTSD service dogs to veterans.

Under this new model, we offered mental health providers the use of our dogs for individual and group therapy. We trained partner therapists to use command words to assist first responders with barriers PTSD may cause during their therapy sessions. A verbal "assist" command interrupted flashbacks and a "nudging" command kept the client grounded during tough discussions.

The new model aimed to differentiate CSD from typical therapy dog programs by incorporating specific service dog tasks alongside support and comfort. This made it possible to help many more people during a time when they were most vulnerable to symptoms.

               

Our pilot program was a great success. We were fortunate enough to find a mental health clinic that was willing to help us test our new model. This allowed us to start an intern program which was very helpful in developing the skills the dogs would need in their new jobs. Initially, three of our dogs worked in a weekly group setting with adolescent girls. We added two new dogs to the pilot program that worked with individuals at the same clinic. In 2017, we contracted with Regions Behavioral Health and the dogs began their work with partner therapists. Each dog had their own caseload with an emphasis on clients who were emergency responders processing trauma.

 

Pandemic: 2020-2022 

The Covid-19 pandemic greatly impacted Courage Service Dogs. Our dogs were not able to work for two years which significantly impacted their ability to maintain the skills necessary for their work. In addition, many mental health clinics had switched to a video system of therapy, so the dogs had minimal work. In 2022, our dogs returned to work in person with their clinic partner therapists. The pups were a bit rusty but quickly settled back into the program. However, the continuation of the preference for virtual therapy sessions resulted in gaps in the dogs' clinic schedules. In order to fulfill our goal of reaching as many first responders as possible, we decided to discontinue our clinic model in 2023.

Restructure to an Emergency Responder Station Dog Model: 2023-Present

Helping emergency responders has always been a primary goal for Courage Service Dogs. The development of PTSD and other trauma symptoms is a huge sacrifice made by those who protect our lives on a daily basis. We are determined to give back to these heroes and do what we can to make their lives more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Since its creation in 2013, Courage Service Dogs has facilitated an ongoing relationship with the City of Plymouth. The Albertville Fire Department has been a great supporter of our program. They allow us to use their fire station for training and pack play purposes. Hose testing night has always been a big hit with the pups! We have also attended the fire station open houses throughout the metro area over the past 10 years. In addition, we have been supported by the Metro Fire Chiefs Association.

The seed for our current model was planted in 2019 when we were asked by the St. Louis Park Fire Department to bring our dogs to their station where they could spend time with firefighters and other emergency workers. The dogs were able to make several visits, but once the pandemic hit, we needed to discontinue this service. It was this experience that provided the basis for creating our Emergency Responder Station Dog program.

In 2023, we began working with the City of Plymouth. Our dogs regularly visit the fire stations, as well as the police department. They work 5-6 hour shifts twice a week. This allows law enforcement officers and firefighters to engage with the dogs in their own environment.

  

Future Plans for Courage Service Dogs

 

  1. Partner with additional public safety departments within the metro area to provide services to their first responders.

  2. Develop a tailored program to assist public safety departments with acquiring and training full-time station dogs that meet their specific needs.

  3. Implement a working dogs training seminar for first responders. This training would provide an opportunity to learn about the different types of working dogs they may encounter during their shifts. It would also highlight the current laws regarding dogs in public and the best practices when dealing with handlers and trainers they come into contact with while working.

  4. Develop an education program for first responders that would provide classes on training a PTSD service dog for personal use. This would allow individuals to work with their own dogs to develop the skills necessary to become a high-quality PTSD service dog team.

  5. Provide access to our dogs through our pack play outings and other off-duty activities that are just for fun.

  6. Partner with public safety departments for fundraising opportunities

 

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