Some veterans receive vital assistance from service dogs, highly-trained animals that are taught to carry out specific tasks that make their master’s disability a little less difficult. It can take a year or two to teach them how they can best serve a former member of the military who has trouble walking, maintaining his balance, hearing or seeing.

Other veterans benefit from dogs who are simply being dogs, providing loyal companionship, emotional support, a warm body to hug and a playful pal. Their job is to help veterans make the transition to the civilian world from military life and maybe the rigors of war. Founder Les Croland, the other members of the board of Pets 4 G.I.s and the organization’s 20 or so volunteers are doing their best to make that transformation as painless as possible.

“The dogs provide comfort, alleviate stress and make the vets calmer,” said Croland, a retired corporate attorney who practiced law in Florida and now calls Mount Pleasant home. “Sometimes when a veteran has a companion dog, he can cut down on his medication. The dogs really help these guys.”

Croland, who wanted to find a way to give back to the community, originally started a chapter of a national organization in the Charleston area, but he later decided that the local group could be more efficient on its own. In addition to Croland, the board includes Daniel P. Linas and Darcie Goodwin. Volunteers also help out, and veterinary care is provided by Advanced Animal Care, Animal Medical Center of Mount Pleasant and retired veterinarian Dr. Lorin Lawrence. Trainers are the only people paid for their work.

Croland said most of the organization’s companion animals come from shelters, and they generally receive four to six weeks of training. During that time, the dog usually stays in a foster home. Though no specific breed works best, Croland pointed out that the ideal companion dog doesn’t scare easily, is social with other dogs and isn’t spooked by loud noises.

“The most important thing is that the dog bonds with the vet,” he said.

He finds veterans who would be likely to benefit from having a companion dog by dropping off materials at local Veterans Administration offices. Croland said the veterans and the dogs are his clients, and he looks out for the best interests of both.

“We consider the living facilities,” he said. “The home has to be adequate for the dog. For instance, if the fence needs to be fixed, we might ask them to take care of that before we give them a dog.”

Once a dog is ready to take up permanent residence at the vet’s home, Pets 4 G.I.s provides dog food for a couple of months, a bed and toys. The veterinarians who help out give the animal the necessary shots as well. Croland estimated that the organization spends between $2,000 and $2,500 on each dog it places with a veteran.

So far, Pets 4 G.I.s has matched 11 vets with dogs, seven of them in the past 12 months. Emma found a new home with Todd Wooten of Hanahan near the end of 2016. An Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, Wooten said the 2-year-old bluetick-pointer mix has made a big difference in his life.

“Pets 4 G.I.s is fantastic,” he said. “People don’t realize that soldiers go through a lot. You lose yourself. A dog helps you find yourself. Emma knows when I’m having issues or when I’m angry or anxious. She brings joyfulness and peace if I’m feeling depressed. Her lovingness is like its own medication.”

“She’s always there and always wants affection,” he added. “Some vets don’t like taking medication, and having a dog takes them to a whole new world.”

“Dogs have a very soothing effect on veterans,” Croland added.

How You Can Help

Pets 4 G.I.s spends anywhere from $2,000 and $2,500 on each dog it matches with a veteran, so the organization depends on donations and the efforts of volunteers. Tax-deductible financial contributions are always welcome.

In addition, volunteers are needed to man booths at various events throughout the year. For instance, in May, Pets 4 G.I.s was the “charity of choice” at a Charleston RiverDogs baseball game – for the second year in a row – and the first pitch was thrown out by Ryan Crawford, a veteran who received a dog through the program.

Pets 4 G.I.s President Les Croland said volunteers are needed to foster dogs while they are being trained. He pointed out that it also would be helpful to find someone with technology skills to donate their time to enhance the organization’s social media presence. And, he said he could also use a few more veterinarians who would be willing to pitch in.

“I don’t want to overburden the veterinarians who are already helping us,” he said.

More information can be found at Les Croland at P.O. Box 1244 in Mount Pleasant. If you are interested in helping Pets 4 G.I.s in any other way, call 305-979-0012.