The Hearts of Gold service dog training program at West Virginia University is saving the lives of military veterans like Jennifer Gieseke, who still battles the lingering physical and mental effects of her service in the United States Air Force.
“I wouldn’t leave my house, I wouldn’t go to my appointments by myself, I couldn’t live on my own anymore,” Gieseke said. “Getting a dog — and having a dog by my side to help me if I fell, to wake me from my nightmares, to calm me back down so I could go back to sleep — was completely life-changing. The dog gave me back my independence.”
Now, a supporter’s $200,000 gift, the largest individual contribution in Hearts of Gold’s history, is providing new amenities to boost the program’s efficiency.
The funds will be used to purchase a van equipped to safely transport dogs and to build on-site kennels at the Hearts of Gold training facility at WVU’s Stewartstown Road Research, Education and Outreach Center.
Matthew Wilson, associate dean for research at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, said the added resources will help the program aid more military veterans in need. The program currently relies on community residents to foster prospective service dogs, which limits their training time and availability.
“Having the ability to house our animals on site and take them right from that on-site housing to training will allow us to be much more efficient about what we do and do a much better job meeting the incredible need there is for service animals to assist veterans and service members,” Wilson said. “A van to transport animals will make it so much more efficient and reliable and predictable, and it allows us to start to think about what we can do beyond the rate of placement we have today.”
Hearts of Gold is a program offered through Human-Animal Bond, a nonprofit organization founded more than 15 years ago by Dr. Jean Meade, a Morgantown-area veterinarian. Then an adjunct faculty member at the Davis College, Meade partnered with WVU to provide space for the program and help students in animal science programs gain hands-on experience with small animals.
Wilson said roughly 100 students assist with the early stages of training each year as part of their coursework. Professional trainers then take over and work with participating veterans to match them with an appropriate dog to meet their needs.
Hearts of Gold is largely funded through a U.S. Department of Defense grant, awarded in 2019, which limits its scope to military veterans within 100 miles of WVU’s facility. About 20 veterans apply annually and the program aims to place 15 dogs with veterans each year. Participating veterans incur no cost for travel, training, the dog or its care until they complete training and certification with their dog, at which time ownership is transferred to the veteran.
“To have access to a dog at no cost, that meant my freedom, that meant getting my life back,” Gieseke said. “I’m not quite sure how else to define it. There are so many organizations that put a monetary value on that, and I could never afford that. And I got it. And it means the world to me.”
Gieseke first sought a service dog following a suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization at Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg where another veteran’s service dog provided comfort. A therapist connected her with Hearts of Gold and she received her first service dog, Raleigh, in 2013. She now relies on a successor dog, Lily Rose, to assist with mobility issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Clifton VanGilder said his service dog, Gunny, helps him deal with back and knee issues stemming from over six years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as anxiety due to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Gunny has helped me a lot when it comes to mobility,” VanGilder said. “I can barely bend over some days. He helps pick up my keys and stuff that I drop. He can pick up anything – pill bottles, cell phone. But he also helps when you’re having a bad day. I recently had a bad day, and he came up and put his paws on my lap, and he got in my face and he wouldn’t look away until I told him it was OK.”
Gunny even accompanies VanGilder to work, where he does maintenance for the federal government. Although his supervisors and colleagues were skeptical at first, VanGilder said they have since noted that his attitude and performance improved after he partnered with Gunny.
Making a difference
The Hearts of Gold service dog training program is funded entirely through grants and private donations. In addition to providing for kennels and a transport van, the $200,000 gift from Jennifer Mason, of Alma, W.Va., also establishes a dedicated fund to support the expansion and continued growth of Hearts of Gold.
Mason’s generous contribution reflects her love for animals and a passion for supporting West Virginia people and programs.
“My husband, Ken, and I love nothing more than helping our state and West Virginians,” Mason said. “I want the WVU Hearts of Gold program to be the best around and to have access to all the tools it requires. Supporting programs like this, that touch so many lives, is our passion.”
Hearts of Gold Program Director Rob Harford said he’s grateful for every donation, as each dollar helps to transform the lives of veterans like Gieseke and VanGilder. Harford noted that another veteran participant had not left his house for four years before joining the program, and he now works outside the home with the aid of a service dog.
“We’re stopping veteran suicide,” Harford said. “We are making an impact in veterans’ lives every day. When we get them in here, we initially might see that anxiety, that stress, and we watch it fade as they train through the program. We are making such an impact here that it can’t be understated.”
Anyone interested in contributing to the Jennifer Mason Hearts of Gold Support Fund (2W1647) can make a gift online or contact Director of Development Andrew Barnes at 304-293-6962 or Andrew.Barnes@mail.wvu.edu for more information.
Mason’s gift was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.
Veterans interested in a service dog through Hearts of Gold can visit humanimalbond.org/heartsofgold to complete an eligibility survey and learn more.
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