Hearts of Gold, a service dog training program at West Virginia University, is increasing their service dog placement goal from 10 dogs to 15 dogs a year.
To accomplish this, the program, housed in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, received their fifth consecutive grant from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences—this time in the amount of $600,000.
“It gives us the confidence and the financial resources to move forward, to grow and to serve the veterans in our state that so desperately need the help,” Dr. Jean Meade, the founder of the program, said.
The Hearts of Gold program, which began in 2007, trains dogs to place with veterans, as well as teaches animal and nutritional sciences students about animal behavior.
While WVU has a lot of veteran students, there are a lot of students who haven’t served in the military. Meade feels that it’s important for those students to get involved and have a way to give back to the veterans.
Since 2018, grants from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, totaling just over $2 million, have covered the cost of caring for the dogs, adding staff to the program and eliminating any cost to veterans—including the gas it takes to drive across town.
“One of the stipulations of the program is that the veteran or service member does not incur any cost,” Matthew Wilson, associate professor and former associate dean for research at the Davis College, said. “The grant pays all the costs to make sure the veterans get the training and support they need to work with their service dog.”
Meade explained that the service dogs provide in-home, round-the-clock care to veterans, creating a deeper sense of independence and confidence.
“A lot of people, and veterans in particular, would prefer to have an animal as support rather than a walker or a wheelchair,” Meade said. “Even though a dog can’t fully replace those assistive devices, they certainly can help the situation. Plus, there’s the added bond that happens between the dog and human.”
West Virginia has one of the highest per capita veteran populations in the country, and with the majority of West Virginia being rural, veterans have limited access to the care and support they need.
Wilson recalls a veteran who enrolled in the program, and as a result, he was able to drastically improve his quality of life.
“He had not left his house in four years, but since becoming part of the service dog program, he now goes out in the community and even goes shopping—all with the help of his service dog,” Wilson said. “That’s the kind of effect the Hearts of Gold program has.”
The goal is to help as many veterans as possible, not only through the breeding and training of service dogs, but through inspiration as well.
"The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences funding allows us to expand the program and serve as an example for other organizations that may be interested in starting a similar program,” Wilson said.
The Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design envisions a world sustainably fed, clothed and sheltered. To learn more about the Davis College, visit davis.wvu.edu. Keep up with the latest updates and news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by following @WVUDavis.
CONTACT: Leah Smith
Public Relations Specialist
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
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