“A trained service dog is the best medicine for individuals with deep invisible wounds. It’s an opportunity not to survive, but to live. Without Mutts With A Mission, my obituary would have been written years ago.” – Cheryl Caves, U.S. Army Veteran and Mutts With A Mission graduate
“I would come home every night and think to myself, ‘There has to be something I can do’,” remembers Brooke Corson, an Army veteran and longtime dog trainer. She solidified her solution in 2008 by establishing Mutts With A Mission—a nonprofit dedicated to providing highly skilled service dogs to veterans, wounded warriors, law enforcement officers, first responders and federal agents injured or disabled in the line of duty. Corson’s service dogs assist not only the physically maimed but the mentally and emotionally scarred as well.
“I started this organization mainly because I kept losing friends,” says Corson, who previously witnessed high suicide rates among her fellow drill sergeants stationed at Fort Benning. According to Corson, many fell victim to post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, both of which went largely untreated or were alleviated only through medication and counseling services. Corson, who touts extensive experience in the dog training arena, zeroed in on the potential benefits service animals could offer wounded veterans. The research proved largely unchartered in the early 2000s, but based on service members’ response to Corson’s puppy, Angus, on the Georgia base, she was confident dogs could have a positive impact on healing the soul.
When it comes to the goals of Mutts With A Mission, there is a lot to unpack. Corson and her team not only train service dogs, they vet potential recipients (or handlers) through a strict application process, train handlers on the rights and responsibilities of owning a service dog, and run an organization that aims to do everything to the highest and best degree. “I knew I didn’t want to be just another nonprofit, so I started looking at certifying agencies, and that’s when I found out about Assistance Dog International,” says Corson.
An accreditation from ADI asserts service dog programs as the best in the world and holds every organization to a rigid set of standards in performance and operation. “It took us seven years to get accredited, but now we are only one of 78 programs in the United States to be ADI accredited. Being accredited through ADI means that our veterans are able to get medical benefits for their dogs paid for through the VA. They can also fly internationally,” adds Corson.
Affordability was also high on Corson’s list; from start to finish, neither Puppy Raisers nor handlers pay a dime for their dog’s care while undergoing Mutts With A Mission training. The only investment participants make to the organization are their time and lifelong commitment to love and care for their service animal. The cost-free commitment is what ultimately helped Karen Goodwin-Barbour convince her husband to accept her role as Puppy Raiser. “I [previously] worked at another nonprofit as a barn manager on a horse farm. I sustained a pretty serious injury there which ultimately resulted in me not being able to ride,” says Goodwin-Barbour. “I moved into an administrative position, but still had this desire to work with animals and veterans. That’s how I found Mutts With A Mission.”
Goodwin-Barbour stepped into her role as a Puppy Raiser—volunteers who raise and begin initial training of puppies—three years ago and now works full-time as Mutts With A Mission’s Grant Administrator. “It has been the most rewarding experience I have ever had,” she says.
Puppy Raisers house, train and travel with their furry companions until the dogs reach eight weeks old. Corson then evaluates the puppies for success in a service dog program. “There are some breeds that are more suitable than others to become services dogs,” explains Corson. Depending upon their evaluations, puppies remain at Mutts With A Mission for formal training with Corson or are transferred to another program within the ADI cooperative.
Formal training is where the bulk of Mutts With A Mission’s time is spent. “A service dog has to be able to do a minimum of three tasks to mitigate the struggles of a disability; it was a big challenge to find the tasks we could train dogs to perform to help veterans suffering from PTSD,” Corson explains. “[Our dogs] can go into a dark room and cut on the lights, create space, alert to anxiety attacks through what we call ‘lap ups’, wake [handlers] from night terrors, give medication reminders or go find help.”
Due to the length of training, Mutts With A Mission is on a years-long waitlist for veterans and first responders in need of a service dog. The nonprofit hosts only two Transition Camps per year, each of which introduces six to 10 handlers to their service dogs, but receives upwards of 10 formal applications for dogs per month.
The numbers prove the need for service animals, and Corson and her team are on a mission to fulfill it. “It’s important to remember that service dogs are a modality of treatment,” reiterates Corson. While a service dog cannot cure PTSD or replace a disabled limb, they can certainly ease anxieties, protect their handlers and spread love in the lives of those that need it most.
How They Make A Difference
- The organization hosts Transition Camp for accepted applicants, during which combat-wounded individuals are paired with service dogs (teams) and learn commands/everyday responsibilities of owning a service animal like dining in restaurants, navigating the airport, managing strangers’ interactions with the dog, etc.
- They cover all costs associated with training—food, treats, travel, veterinary expenses and more.
- Mutts With a Mission offers qualified candidates the opportunity to owner-train eligible dogs as service dogs.
- Mutts With A Mission remained open during the pandemic by virtue of founder Brooke Corson, who singlehandedly housed and trained 14 puppies who otherwise would have lost a year of training and consequently postponed individuals in need of support due to the closures caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
What You Can Do to Help
Corson and her team are always accepting applications for Puppy Raisers. Mutts With A Mission seeks responsible, dog-loving individuals who are dedicated to the puppy’s future role as a highly trained service dog.