Johnson trains puppy for vets program

Sioux Center Veterinary Clinic’s Kelly Johnson goes through some of the commands she has taught Major, a yellow lab puppy who will be donated to the Partners for Patriots group to receive additional training before he’s paired up with a veteran with special needs.

REGIONAL—Patriotism has never been so cuddly.

Supporting the military is important to Barb McAvoy of rural Ireton, who has family and children who’ve served their country.

So, when McAvoy’s yellow lab, eM (and, yes, that is the proper spelling), was expecting her first litter of puppies, she wanted one of them to make a difference to a veteran. She had seen firsthand how a service dog was able to change one veteran’s life.

“My dog has such a good demeanor and she’s liked by so many people here, my husband and I said that if she ever had puppies, we’d love to give one as a service dog,” McAvoy said.

At first, she and her husband tried to find a national veteran’s group to donate one of the puppies, but that didn’t pan out. Apparently, most of those organizations tend to use their own kennels.

When she was talking with Pastor Corey Van Sloten, who owns the sire yellow lab that bred with eM, about her idea and the obstacles she had encountered, he told her about a program he had heard about: Partners for Patriots.

Partners for Patriots is a nonprofit for veterans that obtains, trains and gives specially trained service dogs to disabled veterans, free of charge. Although it began in Tennessee, it’s now based in Anthon.

Although training dogs to aid veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the hallmarks of Partners for Patriots, they can be trained to assist with a variety of disabilities, such as mobility issues, according to its website,

They can help owners with balance issues or retrieve dropped items, help the owner get out of a chair, open doors or take off shoes, socks or jackets.

Citing statistics, Partners for Patriots says every 80 minutes in the U.S., a veteran with PTSD commits suicide. For vets struggling with PTSD, a trained dog could be a lifesaver, giving Partners for Patriots its mission.

“I work in a vet clinic, so I work with animals all the time. I see how special they are. Animals can really be a help and a blessing to people,” McAvoy said.

All this requires special training that takes anywhere between six months to a year and a half.

McAvoy, who is an office manager at the Ireton Veterinary Clinic, turned to Kelly Johnson of Sioux Center, a veterinary technician at the Sioux Center Veterinary Clinic, asking her to raise one of the puppies before it would be sent on to Partners for Patriots.

It wasn’t a hard decision for Johnson to make. She loves puppies and saw this as an opportunity to take on a long-term project as she stays and works in the U.S.

Johnson calls Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, home, and she’s been in Sioux Center since August.

“I really miss being with my dog that I left in Europe with my parents. Training and having a little project for me right now is helpful mentally because I have left everyone back in Europe,” Johnson said.

Her father, Roger Johnson, needed some convincing to approve the plan, but it all worked out in the end.

The puppies were born Nov. 25, and Johnson has since taken one of them to learn the basics: sit, stay, lay down, kennel training and how to walk with someone whether on a leash or not.

The puppy, named Major, is a quick learner. Although he has a lot of energy, Johnson said he can focus well.

“Right now we’re working on increasing the duration of time he can focus on a task,” Johnson said. “Patience is another thing we need to work on because he gets very excited when we play together.”

The name Major comes from her father’s rank, which he achieved after 12 years of active duty and 10 years in the U.S. Army Reserves. The other name she considered for him was Roger.

In addition to her father, her grandfather served in the military, as is a cousin.

Johnson started looking after Major on Jan. 25, and she’s loved working with the pup.

Major comes to work with her at the clinic, where he’s popular with the other staff. In between surgeries and other tasks, Johnson can quickly go through different training routines with him.

She is a self-taught trainer, taking tips from different books and guides. She’s also learned a bit from the example of famous dog trainer Cesar Millan. It’s important not to get too hung up about following any single method, she’s found out, and instead, just see what works well for Major.

One of the challenges she’s run into is that Major doesn’t like being separated from her, as he’ll start whining.

“Patience is key, for sure,” Johnson said about training. “You have to be strict but know how to reward them in a very positive way. It doesn’t have to be treats all the time because then you can get some negative behavior because then they want treats all the time.”

Those alternative rewards can be petting or praise.

Johnson, who said her time with Major so far has been a great experience, will train Major for about a year before he’s sent on to Partners for Patriots.

McAvoy said it’s amazing to know that one of her dog’s puppies will then help make a veteran’s life better.

“It feels like a blessing,” she said. “It’s going to be such a huge help to somebody and change their lives. And it was just as simple as giving a dog away for me.”