Patriot Service Dogs competes for service award

And they want your vote!

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Posted October 20, 2022 | By Rosemarie Dowell
Rosemarie@Ocalagazette.com

A local nonprofit that trains and provides service dogs for military veterans has been named a finalist in the 2nd Annual Defender Service Awards and is the only Florida-based organization out of 800 total entries to contend for a top prize.

Patriot Service Dogs (PSD), based in Marion County, is competing with four other organizations in the Veterans Outreach category in the Land Rover-sponsored contest that recognizes U.S. and Canadian nonprofits and charities making a positive impact in their communities.

The organization places trained service dogs free of charge with honorably discharged veterans with mobility problems, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and other issues from any era, regardless of combat wound status.

“We are a very small organization that’s supported by sponsorship and donations,” said Victoria Sanderson, volunteer coordinator for PSD, which was co-founded by her mother, Julie Sanderson in 2009. “Winning would go a long way with us, there’s never enough money to go around.”

Other categories in the contest include Search and Rescue, Environmental and Conservation, Community Service and Animal Welfare. The winner in each category will be determined by public vote now (Oct. 21) through Nov. 6 at landroverusa.com.

Victors will receive a customized Land Rover Defender and a monetary prize of $25,000. Finalists in the contest were awarded $5,000.

One vote per day per email address is allowed. Winners will be notified in early December.

Victoria Sanderson said the organization found out about the contest via social media with just a day or two to go before the submission deadline Sept. 7 and decided to enter. The group quickly made some calls to a few former clients/veterans and asked if they would be willing to help PSD make a video, obviously along with their service dogs, she said.

“It was a bit of a whirlwind, we really didn’t have much time,” she said. “We met in a church parking lot, and I made a video using my iPhone and submitted it two hours before the deadline.”

She added, “We were shocked when they notified us that we were finalists.”

Since its founding, PSD has trained and provided service dogs to 53 veterans, mostly through its WOOF (Women Offering Obedience and Friendship) program at Lowell Correctional Institution in unincorporated Marion County.

“The inmates help us as our primary trainers,” said Sanderson. “In turn, they learn valuable job skills in the pet industry and have the confidence and experience to do well when they get out.”

The majority of dog breeds the organization trains are Labradors or golden retrievers, mainly due to their size and temperament.

“They are the right size for service dog work and work well with veterans with traumatic brain injuries,” she said. It takes two years for a dog to complete training and get a final health clearance before being paired with a deserving veteran, most of whom hail from Florida.

The average cost to train a dog is $20,000 to $25,000, but veterans pay nothing to receive one through PSD, said Sanderson. Sponsors pay $7,000, with donations helping to defray the rest of the cost. Shamrock Animal Hospital in Mount Dora donates veterinary services.

Currently, 17 dogs are in various stages of training at PSD and Sanderson hopes area residents will take the time to vote for the organization through Nov. 6 and help them win the contest.

“We are definitely underdogs,” said Sanderson. “So, any help the community could give us would be wonderful and much appreciated.”