I met Sam Daly at the beginning of 2015. It had been an unforgiving, cold winter. One of my companion rabbits, Sophie, had passed away unexpectedly, and I was a mess—I had been for weeks. Despite this, I was expected to show up for work at the newspaper, sit in my cubicle, and generate stories.
At the start of 2015, Daly’s non-profit, Believet, wasn’t even called Believet yet—it was called Canine Service Partners, and they were just getting off the ground. Daly himself had been tapped as the keynote speaker for the upcoming Prairie’s Edge Humane Society annual fundraising banquet, and I was putting together an advance on the event for the Northfield News.
To get photos of Daly and his team working with their small pack of service dogs in training, we met at the now defunct Northfield Armory, where he was running the dogs through exercises in the building’s gymnasium. After our meeting, he invited me out to his property for more photos and additional conversation.
It was there where I was introduced to one of the dogs in training, Mr. Fritz.
I would later learn that Mr. Fritz wasn’t exactly cut out to be a service dog, but, as Daly put it, he was going to make a fine emotional support animal for someone.
I have no reason to doubt that. As I continued to speak with Daly and his associates, I had crouched down to take some notes, and Mr. Fritz wandered right over to me, unprompted, and nestled his head in tightly under my arm, like he was trying to give me a hug.
Like he knew that I needed a hug.
To Afghanistan and Back
Daly is the proprietor of Northfield Kennels and is fast approaching 30 years experience working as a dog trainer. In 2010, he was recruited by the military to train explosive detection dogs.
“I had no idea I would be attached to a U.S. Marine Battalion hunting explosives on the Afghanistan battlefield,” he said of his experience, adding the more time he spent training Marine Corps dogs and their handlers, the more he felt like the young service members needed his help in ways beyond simply training a dog.
“Many veterans and their families say that they are looking for hope,” he continued. “They are looking for a solution to post-traumatic stress, and they say that Veterans Affairs does not have any answers for them.”
Upon returning to the area following his time in Afghanistan, Daly began making connections in the Northfield community, and the idea for Believet—a non-profit that provides a free service dog to a veteran in need—began to take shape.
Since its inception in 2015, Believet has paired 13 trained service dogs with veterans and is on track to place another six this fall. The training process takes 120 hours, and Believet works primarily with dogs from animal shelters.
Due to the unknown background and possible emotional baggage that may come with a shelter dog, Daly admitted some dogs might not always make it through the training program.
However, those animals are still able to serve.
“In placing our first emotional support dog, the nice thing about that is that we got a dog out of a shelter,” Daly said. “They are placed in a veteran’s home with (our) training in them, so they are still serving that family.”
Struggles and Successes
Daly said outside of the work of training the service dogs and pairing them with veterans, a bulk of the organization’s time is spent building awareness and raising funds.
Since, 2016, Believet has hosted an annual fundraiser every spring in Northfield. Daly said he has also explored grant writing opportunities for Believet, as well as connecting with annual corporate and individual donors.
“Funding is always a challenge,” he said. “I do not draw a salary from this organization—the only money we spend on personnel is spent on the veterans we serve. We’re functioning at about 50 percent capacity right now—if we had the funding, we could do twice the service that we currently do.”
Daly also attributes some of Believe’s continued success to volunteers.
“In the last two years, we’ve doubled the amount of volunteers in the program.” About 50 people donate their time to keep Believet running.
Through his work with Believet and the clients he serves, Daly has seen a number of both successes and frustrations.
Working with a client employed at 3M, Daly learned the company did not have any protocol for service animals in the workplace. “They dedicated time and resources to create a program to accommodate service dogs,” he said, adding he was pleased that Believet was able to bring about a change.
However, not every workplace is willing to work with Believet or the clients it serves.
“In working with a woman employed at a refinery, we ran into the opposite,” Daly said. “They just flat-out denied her the right to bring the dog to work. We went around and around on it, and the evidence we presented didn’t matter. They were not going to accommodate.”
Invisible in Public
Daly also stresses the awareness and importance for the public to understand to leave a service dog alone while it is “on the clock.”
“Our goal is to train these dogs to be invisible in public,” he said. “When people have an opportunity to experience a service dog in a public environment, treat it like any other medical device. If someone has a wheelchair, you wouldn’t go up and ask them if you could take it for a spin.”
While Daly notes the public should be respectful of an individual with a service animal, he also said the animal itself can be a great “ice breaker” for that person to make a connection with others.
“Interactions are difficult for people with PTSD,” Daly explained. “The dog can become a catalyst for that human connection. Isolation is a prevalent situation that our clients live their lives in, and to be able to go to the grocery store without calling a neighbor or their family, or feel like they are bothering someone because they have a fear of a public environment—(with the service dog) now they can do that on their own.”
Kevin Krein is a friend to all animals and a writer living in Northfield. Since 2013, he’s operated the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones, and he regularly contributes “The Column of Disquiet” to the website The Next Ten Words. He occasionally takes pictures of cats, and puts them the internet: @KevEFly (Twitter) or @kev_e_fly (Instagram.)
“’Most of you guys are dead.’”
A Vietnam-era veteran from the Navy, Doug Kelder describes his journey toward the eventual pairing with a service dog long and drawn out. He began researching service dogs over five years ago, knowing they could assist with his PTSD.
“It was basically the most disappointing endeavor,” he said. “The places that I talked with told me they didn’t work with Vietnam vets—they said the young guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are the ones that need the help.”
Kelder said he was told most veterans that served in Vietnam are dead.
“There are still a third of us left,” he responded to that. “I’m not dead—and I need help!”
Six and 120 Hours
After years of additional online research, phone calls, and dead ends, he was eventually put in touch with Sam Daly, who invited him to Northfield for a meeting.
Kelder, who resides in Wisconsin, was initially hesitant about a six-hour round trip. However, he also thought if he didn’t take this chance, he would be missing out on something.
He was right to take the chance—after their initial meeting, Kelder began filling out the paperwork and spoke with a Believet counselor. He was told he met the criteria, but the next step for him was figuring out how to log his 120 hours of training.
Kelder committed to driving to Northfield to train Monday through Wednesday, every week. He knew he could cover the cost of gas to get there and back, but it was the lodging cost he was concerned about.
“Sam told me that Believet would pick up the tab for the lodging,” Kelder said. “This is too good to be true.”
Kelder said he met his 120-hour training requirement and passed his public access test. His service dog, Ryder, is now at home with him and his family.
“My wife has said that I am much more of a peaceful individual,” he said, noting the changes he’s experienced since being paired with Ryder. “I’m sleeping sounder, and I’m not getting riled up as quickly as I was before.”
Kelder added when going to a restaurant, he used to ask to be seated at a table where he was able to keep his back against a wall.
“The other day I went out to lunch, and I sat in the middle of the restaurant,” he said. “Ryder was with me, sitting underneath the table. I don’t have the concerns that I had before now that I’m with him, and I only envision it getting better.”
Kelder has witnessed the kind of positive things a service dog can bring into the life of someone working through PTSD, and he knows that as a non-profit, Believet counts on the generosity of others to continue functioning.
“If there are no donations, (Believet) will cease to exist,” he said. “It’s all about donations and this is one heck of worthy cause. I paid my dues by serving this country, and the help that Sam has given me is huge.”