Program Matches FAU Military Veteran Students with Shelter Dogs
Lenny Polidor and Lena bond at the Humane Society of Broward County. (Photo by Alex Dolce)
Lenny Polidor wanted a dog for most of his life. Now thanks to a new program at Florida Atlantic University, the third-year exercise science major will have his wish granted. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Polidor, 26, is the first FAU student to participate in the “FAU Veteran Canine Rescue Mission” in collaboration with the Humane Society of Broward County and Happy With Dogs.
Recently launched through a generous gift from the Phil and Susan Smith Family Foundation, Susan A. Smith, and the Phil Smith Automotive Group, the FAU Veteran Canine Rescue Mission program matches FAU student veterans and alumni veterans with dogs from the Humane Society of Broward County, which will be trained by Happy With Dogs as either for service, emotional support or companionship. The program, which also includes a research component on the human-canine bond, will serve as a resource for more than 1,300 military and veteran students currently at FAU.
Polidor recently met his match, Lena, a 3-month-old American bulldog, lab mix who was born at the Humane Society of Broward County, when her pregnant mom was surrendered to the shelter. It was “love at first sight” and the two have since connected and bonded through the adoption and training process.
“I have a lot on my plate with college and working in security, which creates a lot of stress in my life,” said Polidor. “This program is designed to address my stress and mental well-being and Lena is going to help me manage my life more effectively. More importantly, I hope that my participation in the Veteran Canine Rescue Mission program will bring awareness to other FAU veteran students who may need help.”
Housed within Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors® (C-P.A.W.W. ®) in FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, the FAU Veteran Canine Rescue Mission also is collaborating with FAU’s Military and Veterans Student Success Center to ensure students have the tools required for a smooth transition to civilian and academic life. For 11 consecutive years, FAU has been recognized as a Military Friendly® School.
“This program will decrease the number of shelter dogs in our community and provide a non-pharmacological therapeutic intervention for our veteran students who need support,” said Cheryl Krause-Parello, Ph.D., a professor, interim associate dean for nursing research and scholarship, director of C-P.A.W.W., and a faculty fellow of FAU’s Institute for Human Health and Disease Intervention (I-Health). “Our research shows that having a dog can be a lifeline for veterans struggling with reintegration into civilian life and living with psychological and cognitive wounds. We have shown that just walking with a dog can decrease the severity of veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and reduce stress in the shelter dog, making this work all the more vital.”
Located in Fort Lauderdale, the Humane Society of Broward County advocates for and improves the lives of animals by providing adoptions, community services and education.
“Matching veterans with animals is extremely important to us and is an extension of fulfilling our mission to meet all of the needs of our community,” said Mary Steffen, senior vice president of operations, Humane Society of Broward County. “We are so excited to partner with FAU and Happy With Dogs on this exceptional program. Seeing how Lenny connected with Lena at our shelter was incredibly heartwarming. They have saved each other.”
Following a 10-day training retreat with U.S. Marine Corps veteran Rebecca Pasko, 32, founder of Happy With Dogs, a training, boarding and daycre facility in Miami, Lena is now home with Polidor and continues with in-home training sessions with Pasko.
“I’ve been training dogs since I was 8 and I have seen how they can be such special companions in ways that humans cannot be,” said Pasko, who served in the marines from 2008 to 2012 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and Djibouti, Africa in 2010. “As a veteran with PTSD, my own four dogs including one service animal have enabled me to live a normal life. I truly believe that dogs can help people and I’m thrilled to be part of this important program.”
Duration of the training with Pasko depends on whether the dog will be a companion, emotional support or service animal. Lena is currently being evaluated to determine if she has the temperament to be a service animal. Either way, Lena will be Polidor’s ‘fur-ever’ companion.
FAU researchers in the College of Nursing, Krause-Parello and Beth Pratt, Ph.D., an assistant professor, and the Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work within FAU’s College of Social Work and Criminal Justice, Christine Spadola, Ph.D., an assistant professor, are studying how dogs improve veterans’ well-being, discovering how working with and adopting dogs can treat their invisible wounds of war and are advancing policies that support the therapeutic use of animals.
“We are extremely grateful to the Phil and Susan Smith Family Foundation, Susan A. Smith, and the Phil Smith Automotive Group and our program collaborators who all share our vision, which is the first step toward building a model that has the potential to be a gold standard for national replication,” said Safiya George, Ph.D., dean, FAU Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. “C-P.A.W.W. has years of experience, published research articles, and proven data to support its mission and outcomes. It also is the only university-based program of its kind nationally – a scalable model – that could have a tremendous impact and reach beyond South Florida.”
Polidor, who also is a body builder, plans to include Lena – a great match for his level of physical activity – in his various workout routines including long runs.
“I know that I’m going to have to work out with Lena and keep her active. She’ll keep me on my toes and we’ll motivate each other,” said Polidor.