Sam Daly was recruited five years ago by the military to begin training explosive detection dogs and found himself attached to a U.S. Marine Battalion in Afghanistan.
The Northfield dog trainer said the longer he was involved with the Marine Corps, the more he felt like young service members needed his help in other ways.
“Many veterans and their families say that they are looking for hope,” said Daly, a dog trainer with more than 24 years of experience, and the proprietor for Northfield Kennels. “They are looking for a solution to Post-Traumatic Stress, and they say that Veterans Affairs does not have any answers for them.”
Last fall, Daly was given a chance to act on his feelings and to perhaps provide the answers that have eluded area veterans. He spoke at a Northfield Rotary Club meeting to start raising awareness of his interest in training service dogs that would then be paired with area veterans.
It was at that meeting where Daly connected with Northfielder John Sinning.
“I thought his story was compelling,” Sinning said. “He was emotional as he told it, and half the men in the audience were wiping away tears.”
It was after that meeting that Sinning connected Daly with another friend who also wanted to train service dogs to assist veterans. Eventually, the two of them approached Sinning about him becoming a business partner.
Daly said they came to him and said they wanted to train service dogs, but had no interest in running a company or doing any of the administrative work and fundraising that is associated with starting a business.
“I told them, ‘No problem. I can do that,’” Sinning said.
From those connections and conversations, the three partners founded “Believet” nearly a year ago. The organization aims to provide service dogs, free of charge, for veterans suffering from combat-related injuries or disabilities.
Sinning said that since January, the organization hasn’t stopped training service dogs for three clients in the area.
The group has spent the last 10 months working on building awareness — including Daly’s keynote speech at the Prairie’s Edge Humane Society annual banquet in the spring, and additional meetings with other Rotary and Lions Clubs in the area.
“At some point we said, ‘This is great to have awareness, but we can’t go forward unless we get some funding.’” Sinning said. “We’re trying to figure out the mix between major donors and smaller $2,500-a-time donations.”
As the group continued to build awareness, Sinning said it started working on its company vision, values and mission statement with the help of a marketing firm. This included changing the original name — Canine Service Partners — to Believet, as well as launching the group’s website.
“At this point, now that we have the awareness, we are looking to engage with the community more,” Sinning said. “And we’re depending on the generosity of the community to get this going.”
Daly said that while he feels that Believet has had success with the awareness it has built, he has found that the notion of service dogs assisting with PTSD is a new idea in some parts of the country, and therefore, finding donors has been difficult.
“Less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military,” he said. “It doesn’t touch a majority of families by any means, so it has been difficult to get people on board for fundraising since they aren’t touched by it; they just don’t understand. But these former service men and women feel isolated and they feel like communities don’t understand the issues they are going through.”
He also said that the time it takes to deliver a service dog to the client can be frustrating.
“We’re building a living and breathing animal that has to be trained to a high level,” he said, calling the process time consuming.
Daly said he hasn’t turned away any prospective clients, but he also has hesitated to start a waiting list until Believet has more funding available.
“I talked to a mother of a veteran two days ago who was very excited about the prospect of a service dog,” he said. “She asked me how long it takes to train the dog. She was deflated to hear that it takes upwards of a year. ‘My son doesn’t have a year,’ she told me.”
However, he said that even with the wait, he wants veterans and their families to remain hopeful about the possibility.
“Service members feel like their issues with PTSD are not very well understood — from the VA down to their own communities,” he said. “These service dogs and support dogs bridge that gap. How a dog can transform someone’s life is very real, and it’s one of the biggest forms of hope these men and women have.”