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Patriot Dog is the one

Patriot Assistance Dog Jackson, right, with his new owner, U.S. Army veteran Mitch Kraft. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes

Though he’s been out of the U.S. Army since June 2011, it wasn’t until about a year ago that Mitch Kraft began experiencing panic attacks and anxiety.

“My heart started racing, and I’d have hot flashes,” he said, noting that his doctors told him he was suffering from panic attacks.

Kraft spent four years in the Army, during which he was deployed to Iraq and did two overseas tours in Korea and Germany.

When the problems he was having due to his experiences there began to escalate, Kraft began looking for solutions, and discovered the Patriot Assistance Dog program, based in Detroit Lakes.

The PAD program pairs veterans experiencing problems like Kraft’s with service dogs that have been specifically trained to deal with veterans’ physical, mental and emotional difficulties related to their military service.

“It’s the closest program of its kind to Wahpeton (where Kraft lives),” said Mitch’s fiancée, Kristina Gregg.

So he went to Lucky Dog Boarding & Training Center, where the program is housed, and began training with a PAD service dog.

“It didn’t quite work out — we weren’t the right fit for each other,” Kraft said (that dog has since been paired with another veteran).

So he went back for another training session with the program — and it was then that he first laid eyes on Jackson, a 1½-year-old Boxer-Labrador retriever mixed breed that had come to the PAD program through the Marshmallow Foundation.

The Marshmallow Foundation is a non-profit, no-kill animal shelter, also housed inside Lucky Dog, which works to unite stray, abandoned and rescued companion animals with their “forever homes.”

Marshmallow Founda-tion Executive Director Sue Fiste said she knew Jackson would be a good fit for the PAD program almost from the first moment she saw him.

“He had been owned by a family in a rental property,” she said. “The rental property got black mold, so they had to move, and couldn’t keep him.”

The family temporarily gave custody of Jackson to a neighbor, who already had several animals of his own and couldn’t keep him long-term, in the hopes that the neighbor could find a permanent home for him.

“This guy got Jackson neutered, got him his shots, a physical exam… he took excellent care of him,” Fiste said. “But he just couldn’t find the right fit. He came to me in January and asked if we could possibly take Jackson in, so we did. He was very upset at first, but I told him we were a no-kill facility.

“Jackson is an amazing dog. Right away I found something very special in him. I brought him to the attention of the PAD program, and they did a temperament evaluation on him. He passed with flying colors.”

Jackson also aced the physical exam, and was placed in a foster home while he underwent the PAD training.

The first time he and Mitch Kraft locked eyes, it was a foregone conclusion where he would end up, Fiste said.

“He went through the training, and they had him placed with his family very quickly,” she added.

“During that first training session, his (Jackson’s) eyes were on Mitch the entire time,” Gregg said. “It was love at first sight.”

“I just looked at him and I knew,” Kraft agreed. “We started bonding right away.”

In fact, though Kraft had trained with his first service dog for a month, it was a matter of days before Jackson was sent home with him.

“I’ve had him for three weeks now, and we are very well bonded already,” Kraft said. “I take him everywhere I go. He keeps me grounded when I have bad days.

“When I get wound up and angry, he helps calm me down. For being such a young dog, he is very even tempered.”

“He’s cool as a cucumber,” Gregg added with a smile.

“I get stopped all the time by people who say, ‘I wish my dog could do that’ (i.e., stay so calm in crowds),” Kraft said.

“In restaurants, we sometimes forget he’s even there,” Gregg added. “He doesn’t make any noise, and if food drops on the floor, all we have to say is ‘leave it’ and he’ll let it stay there.”

But when Kraft is starting to show signs of anxiety, Jackson “starts working from his legs up, nudging and licking him, trying to snap him out of it,” Gregg said.

“When I get anxious, he’ll start whining (as a distraction, so he starts paying attention to Jackson’s needs instead),” Kraft said.

Jackson will keep up this behavior until Kraft says ‘Good boy’ or ‘I’m OK.’

But at the end of the day, when Kraft is home for the evening, he’ll take off Jackson’s ‘service dog’ bandana, and “he knows he’s done for the day,” Kraft said.

“Then he’s just a regular dog.”

Fiste said stories like Jackson’s are fairly common, both for the PAD program, and the Marshmallow Foundation.

“We are a no kill facility,” Fiste said. “We work extremely hard to find proper placement for every animal that comes through these doors.

“Jackson is a prime example of the huge potential of the animals that come through these facilities. When placed with the right person, someone who’s willing to put in all the love, proper training and care, they can turn out to be absolutely amazing.”

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454