BILLINGS — $25,000—that’s the average cost of raising and training a service dog in Montana, according to Dog Tag Buddies. Puppies learn how to become service dogs at the Billings nonprofit, but the process can take up to two years.
"Training a dog is hard," said Deede Baker, the executive director and founder of Dog Tag Buddies, on Tuesday. "Training a service dog is even harder."
It's a large commitment.
"Frank here, I have had him for almost a month,” said Rori Lindal, a volunteer puppy trainer at Dog Tag Buddies, on Tuesday. "He’s pretty easy to work with so it makes it fun.”
The dogs are making a difference in veterans' lives by lending a helping paw.
"Not all veterans can handle the crazy puppy stage so I get to help with the basic obedience,” Lindal said. "Usually when a veteran comes in, you can tell that they’re really nervous because they don’t know what to expect. But then when they start working with the dogs and passing the dogs around and you can tell whenever they find the right one because they both kind of just calm down."
The Billings-based nonprofit has now paired 130 veterans with service dogs since its start in 2016. It's the only nonprofit in Montana working to pair veterans with service dogs, according to Baker.
"What we are doing is getting these puppies ready to go into the home of a veteran once they do get paired,” Baker said.
The dogs come from a variety of backgrounds.
"We’ve had some really nice puppies donated by breeders. We’ve had owner surrenders, and we’ve had a few that have been in rescue,” Baker said. "It’s a variety and it just depends on what’s available at the time."
The process to train the dogs can take up to two years and costs around $25,000.
"We are not fully training these puppies," Baker said. "It’s things like teaching them how to do their business on a leash when they go outside. Teaching them to be okay in a crate, teaching them how to just do this. How to relax. Because a service dog, at the end of the day, spends most of its time hurrying up and waiting."
That’s where you can help.
"We absolutely are looking for puppy raisers," Baker said. "We get these puppies in when they’re pretty young. It’s a lot to put on a veteran to have to go through some of the challenges that come with having a new puppy."
Dog Tag Buddies relies on volunteers to help train puppies. Sixteen-year-old Rori Lindal is one of the four volunteers who spend anywhere from a few weeks to a month with the dogs working on obedience skills.
"You get attached pretty easy," Lindal said. "Some dogs are super easy to give back because you don’t click with every dog. But I’ve had a couple that are really hard to give back."
For Lindal, it's personal. Her father is a veteran.
"Being able to see the dogs and the veterans together is just something that not a lot of people get to see. Especially as a 16-year-old," Lindal said. "People are like, ‘Hey that’s really cool.’ And it kind of just makes me strive to want to continue to do it and be a better trainer."
It’s that work that’s making a difference.
"It’s meant everything,” said Hollie Koenigsberg, an Army veteran, last week.
Koenigsberg served six years in the United States Army and deployed to Iraq in 2006.
"Though I’m currently struggling with PTSD and its impact on me, I can live in victory," Koenigsberg said. "Zulu helps me tackle that every day, and she’s become my battle buddy, which is a very common term in the military. She has my back."
Living in victory thanks to four-legged friends and Dog Tag Buddies.
"Even though it’s hard giving the dogs back, it really fills my heart to be able to know I’m helping people,” Lindal said.
To learn more about Dog Tag Buddies, click here.
“Community support is so important to what we do because again, everything we do is at no cost to our veterans. So we’re always looking for volunteers, but we’re also looking to get people engaged in helping support what we do,” Baker said. “For our Giving Tuesday this year, we actually set up a wish list. So people could go out to Amazon, pick things, and have it sent to the training center so we can have new equipment and toys and stuff for the dogs. We’ve been pretty blessed with the support from our community."