By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
The Vietnam Veterans Wall is one of the most visited monuments in Washington, D.C. As a memorial to the 58,220 service members who gave their lives during the Vietnam War, it is a place of somber reflection for millions.
But on some days, there is a bright spot for visitors paying their respects – a furry, floppy bright spot.
Scruggs is a service dog in training. The young Lab spends a good bit of time at The Wall, and for good reason – he’s named after Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam vet and the man who founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which was responsible for getting the iconic monument built.
Jan Scruggs spent more than 35 years advocating for The Wall’s establishment and upkeep. He retired in June, so Hero Dogs, a nonprofit that works with the Fund, thought naming the pup after him was the perfect tribute. The organization has named all of its dogs after American patriots, including President Theodore Roosevelt, famed World War II Navajo code talker Chester Nez and Gen. Billy Mitchell, the father of the Air Force.
Getting to Work
So what’s it like to be a service dog in training? The first 18 months of their lives are all about getting used to being model citizens among people.
“It’s all about exposure – getting them to realize the world and realize that people are awesome and that there’s nothing to be scared of,” said Tim Tetz, the Fund’s director of outreach and Scruggs’ puppy raiser.
He said the pups learn about 85 commands, including picking up keys, having food on their paws to teach restraint, and learning to alert a person if they’re having a nightmare.
But each dog’s experiences are different. Since Scruggs’ trainer is very active with the Fund, he gets to go places that most dogs don’t.
“To him, riding in an elevator is just something you do on the way to work,” Tetz said. The pup will soon go on his first plane ride to join the traveling Vietnam Wall exhibit.
After the first 18 months of training, the dogs spend a few months at Hero Dogs’ kennel, where they perfect more difficult skills, such as carrying a shopping cart or taking a jacket off. Those skills help to decide the veteran with whom they’ll be placed.
“The veteran comes in, and we expose them to the things the service dogs can do,” Tetz said. “Then they see, based on personality, how the dogs react and how they react.”
Most of the dogs are placed with vets who need mobility help, have post-traumatic stress disorder issues or have hearing problems.
“A better part of their training is to spend time for the veteran to learn how they use their dog, and for the dog to learn, ‘This is how I work with my veteran,'” Tetz said.
That full-time training can last up to a year and is the last major hurdle to see if the dogs will work out.
“As much as I can emulate falling and having a dog help me up, I’m not going to get up in the same manner as if I were an amputee,” Tetz said. “So, that’s where the dog gets the real experience.”
It’s a lot of hard work, and not everyone makes the grade.
“Unfortunately, a better part of the majority of our dogs don’t make it, either because of temperament or heath issues,” Tetz said. “Some of them were able to relax and get into an emotional support animal role, but some of them we have to give away to people who are willing to take them and not use them as a service dog.”
Puppies Just Wanna Have Fun
Scruggs, who is a little more than 4 months old, is passing the test so far. But when he’s not busy learning his craft, he has fun like any normal puppy. There’s lots of playing and napping.
“He’s a really good napper,” Tetz said.
When asked if Scruggs and his namesake had any similarities, the response was laughter – a definite yes.
“He’s about as aloof as it gets,” Tetz said of both Scruggs-the-person and Scruggs-the-pup, who was eating a leaf in the middle of the memorial’s walkway at the time.
As long as you’re getting the job done, there’s nothing wrong with aloof!
Tetz said it costs $40,000 to raise each service dog. The vets who benefit from them aren’t charged a thing.
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