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Operation Wolfhound trains service dogs for vets with PTSD

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Operation Wolfhound trains service dogs for vets with PTSD

  • Photo used with permission of Alicia Miller

An international program that trains service dogs for veterans is now being led by an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. 

The 21-year-old full-time student, Rhiannon Miller, is now the head of Operation Wolfhound, a Tucson-based nonprofit that connects veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with psychiatric service dogs for free.

The program focuses on Russian wolfhounds, also known as Borzois.  

"Now that she is 21, we think she is ready," said Rhiannon's mother and Operation Wolfhound co-founder, Alicia Miller. "My daughter is incredibly strong."

Rhiannon transferred from Cochise College to the University of Arizona at the beginning of the 2013 spring semester. She originally wanted to study geology, but decided to major in psychology so that she could better understand the minds of veterans with PTSD. 

"It's probably going to be a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of cramming, and a lot of stress but it's worth it," Rhiannon Miller said. 

Operation Wolfhound was Rhiannon's idea from the beginning. It was her liter of Borzoi puppies, born on July 4, 2007, that started it all. She was 16 years old at the time.

"I had no idea that Operation Wolfhound would get as big as it has," she said.  

Both of Rhiannon's parents are disabled veterans. Watching how service dogs changed their lives is what inspired her to donate two puppies to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The first puppy was placed with a non-veteran as a test run.  

Within four months, the results of the placement were so "resounding" that the VA called back for the second puppy, Rhiannon said. The veteran who received the puppy named him Black Hawk.  

Borzois are the breed of choice for the Millers because of their large size, long life span, and independent personality.

Greyhounds are also placed as service dogs occasionally, Rhiannon said. 

The third dog placed with a veteran was a Borzoi named Bandit. The recipient was Vietnam veteran Ken Costich. Costich also witnessed the placement of the first dog while volunteering at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tucson.

"I talked to a veteran who had a dog and he said that it was the better medicine than anything else he had been prescribed," Costich said. About three months later, Costich was got a service dog of his own.

Bandit knows Costich so well that he is able to wake him up while he is having a nightmare.

"I feel safe with him," Costich said. 

The operation became an official nonprofit in 2008. Originally, the Miller family did all of the dog training themselves. The first year of the operation they placed four dogs. 

 There are now more than 20 volunteer trainers nationwide and have they have placed about 65 dogs with veterans. In 2012 alone, they placed more than 30 dogs throughout the United States.

Dogs have also been shipped as far as Canada and England.  

As the new head of the organization, Rhiannon's responsibilities will include training dogs, contacting veterans, and transporting dogs. Miller will also be in charge of the finances.

Since the beginning of the operation in 2008, Miller estimates that they have been able to operate with less than $5,000. 

"They only way we have been able to do this is because we have been able to connect with a network of goodwill," Rhiannon said. 

Operation Wolfhound relies on donations from breeders of pure-bred Borzois, Alicia Miller said. 

The organization just recently started accepting monetary donations, Rhiannon said. 

"These aren't cheap dogs," she said. "They run about $1,000-$5,000 apiece and breeders are giving them to us for free." 

Rhiannon is spending part of her spring break in Temecula, Calif., to educate a breeder how to teach dogs to work with deaf or hearing impaired veterans. In exchange for her service, the breeder is donating more dogs to Operation Wolfhound.

Rhiannon plans to continue her job as the head of Operation Wolfhound in Tucson and to eventually go to graduate school for psychology. 

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depression, dogs, pets, ptsd, service dogs, ua, va, veterans

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