Pawsitive Love Foundation (PLF) is leading the way to help give our veterans their lives back. A 501(c)3 corp. founded locally by Steve Kotowski, Pawsitive Love Foundation is dedicated to providing properly trained service dogs to children and veterans.
Steve’s passion is to always improve and that launched his new charity PLF right here on the Emerald Coast. Twenty-two veterans take their own lives every day because of depression and hopelessness, and there just aren’t enough dogs available to help combat this issue. This statistic hits home, as we locals live among the greatest population of veterans in the U.S. Steve and his wife Wendy, along with their children, agreed they could do more to help. They know the needs of veterans are far greater than any available solution, as they are looking for hope. Their family vision soon developed in ways they only dreamed about. They were going to not only assist veterans, but also children with epilepsy and autism. Many of these traits are similar to post traumatic stress (PTSD) and traumatic brain Injury.
They named their first recipient of a service dog and benefactors began to join their mission. As word spread, they acquired more dogs, and commenced training for others in need. They select each dog individually for the handler, and train it uniquely to fit their needs. Training can take 6 to18 months depending on the dog, the handler and the tasks required. PLF supplies all of the training (free of charge) until the dog is ready to do its job.
Then, they train the handler. The process begins by learning how to handle many different dogs. To have a highly-trained dog, you must know how to handle it, for the most benefit. A similar analogy would be if you bought a Ferrari for your first car, and didn’t completely understand how to drive it. You probably would need to learn how to drive another car first. PLF has the facility to put the dog handlers through the rigors of training in a setting that is fun and exhilarating, but also safe. There’s no doubt it is hard work for the handlers. But the end result is a team that functions autonomously, which provides the handler a new furry family member, as well as freedom to regain part of their independence.
Pawsitive Love Foundation has lofty goals, for certain. Steve says they plan to place 24 dogs in 2019 with the support of the community. Upgrading the training facility, rallying community support, and educating the general public about veterans’ issues are the most immediate concerns. Since many people aren’t aware of the veteran suicide rate, at 8,000 per year, it is important to spread this message. Also, in 2018, there were nearly 8,000 cases of sexual misconduct reported in the military. Steve says these numbers are simply unacceptable, especially given the fiscal reach of many in our community. With just two large corporate sponsors added to the small businesses and individual sponsors they already have, the number of life-saving dogs to match those in need could easily be doubled or tripled. There is currently no state or federal support for service dogs, although PLF has petitioned the state to support its efforts.
“So how do you make the most impact?” Based on extensive studies and focus group discussions, PLF believes they should help the women who have been sexually assaulted during their military service, specifically the Special Forces operators first, to make those numbers drop significantly. Even though the Special Operations Forces (SOF) have a far lower rate of suicide, with 23 last year alone, this is too many. The SOF operators are leaders in many ways, not only in the military, but also in our community. When we get these groups back on their feet, they can help lead their fellow service members by example. Military structure rarely seems to escape you when you retire, according to many veterans; everyone is looking for a “chief” to lend a hand or solve a problem.
PLF has adopted the concept of using bred-for-purpose dogs in its program. Studies show this has a higher success rate because the dogs are coming from proven genetics and have a clean-slate of history. The dogs don’t possess hidden triggers or issues that many shelter dogs do. To rescue every dog is a beautiful idea, but real service dogs must be more than just an emotional support animal, they have a crucial job to perform. Without performing at the highest level, they are just companions that don’t truly afford freedom for the handler. The handler should not be focused on the dog’s behavior, instead the dog should be focused on its handler’s behavior and their surroundings. Not all dogs are capable of doing this effectively—some trainers say just 1 in 100, and that rate decreases drastically to nearly 1 in 300 for shelter dogs. There just isn’t a large enough selection of dogs in our area to accommodate the many in need like PLF can provide.
Last year, in their first year in operation, PLF provided 11 dogs for veterans and children. This is more than any single provider in our area has accomplished in the last several years combined. They placed dogs locally and nationwide. One family in California received two dogs; they were connected through a local veteran and put in touch with PLF. The family has a daughter Hailey with Epilepsy, and her father suffers from chronic PTSD and a back injury. Hailey has returned to high school with her PLF-K9 Finley, while her father is tackling the world around him with PLF-K9 Cedar. Steve says, “When a family can have hope restored, it is a beautiful thing, it is actually life-giving, and creates hope in others they come in contact with.” He went on to say, “Both of those dogs will be re-evaluated this month. It is a long trip to California, but it is necessary to make certain the teams are working up to par.” All of the PLF teams must be re-evaluated after the first six months as a team; then again each year, as a part of Steve’s commitment to training real service dogs.
PLF has a nationwide reach, and places dogs from coast to coast. The foundation has even welcomed their first Canadian service member, Cindy Weir. She is a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and served on Tyndall AFB for 4 years. Cindy has PTSD and mobility impairment. Since the Canadian troops fight alongside our American Heroes, PLF jumped to assist Cindy on her road to healing. She will soon introduce her new service dog to the great white north. Currently, Canadian veterans are on a five-year waiting list to receive service dogs due to a lack of trainers. Because of the incredible work PLF has accomplished right here on the Emerald Coast, Steve has been invited to help the national effort in Canada. He takes little credit though, rather, he deflects and talks about his team of trainers and caregiving staff at What’s Up Dog. He holds them in high regard, for obvious good reasons.
If you would like more information about Pawsitive Love Foundation, check out www.PLFservicedogs.com. Steve welcomes visitors by appointment, and is always looking for puppy raisers and other volunteers to walk or bathe the dogs.