Healing Spaces: A Journey into Big Dog Ranch Rescue
A visit through the largest dog rescue organization in the United States where healed dogs become the healers.
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Inside the Hoffman Family Veteran Dog Training Center, located on the campus of Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee, Florida, about a half dozen dogs are lounging comfortably on cots or inside crates in a brightly-lit room where an American flag mural covers the back wall and a dry-erase whiteboard, with words and phrases tailored to service dog trainers, stands in full view.
Two dogs, both rescues, move around the room, alongside their trainers, responding to gestures, vocal commands, eye contact and positive reinforcement techniques that teach the dogs to take a specific, and potentially, life-saving action. The goal is for the dogs, once they complete a 12-16 month training program, to assist U.S. Military Veterans with disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, physical disabilities, and more.
At one point, Evan Fried, Director of the Veterans Training Program, is sitting in front of Trooper, a bright-eyed rescue who clearly revels in his service work. Fried suddenly puts his head into his hands, as if in mental or physical distress, and immediately Trooper moves into action, placing two steady front paws on his shoulders and nudging him with his nose, redirecting a possible tense moment. The technique, which encourages the veteran to pet and hug the dog, is meant to interrupt moments of panic or anxiousness.
Under a recent bill introduced by U.S. Senator Deborah Fischer and signed into law in 2021 by President Biden, Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act, the Veterans Administration is partnering with nonprofit organizations such as Big Dog Ranch Rescue where veterans can train, and eventually adopt, their aspiring service dogs. What’s more, the Veteran Service Dog Training Program at Big Dog Ranch Rescue further assists U.S. Veterans by providing all training and equipment necessary for both veteran and dog at no cost to the veteran.
In the United States, adopting a fully trained service dog can cost, on average, between $10,000 and $50,000, depending on the skillset and the dog’s ability to perform highly specialized tasks. Under the Veteran Service Dog Training Program and in collaboration with the VA, veterans not only receive a service dog at no cost, they also receive lifetime veterinary health insurance, service dog hardware, and payment for travel expenses related to acquiring the dog.
Every dog that enters Big Dog Ranch Rescue is a rescue, including those in the Veteran Service Dog Training Program. In fact, since the organization’s founding in 2008 by President Lauree Simmons, some 50,000 dogs have been rescued, rehabilitated and placed in loving homes throughout the United States. Though BDRR started locally in Palm Beach County, it is now a worldwide rescue and dog activist organization – leading the way in global and national initiatives such as rescue missions on the Texas-Mexico border and in Ukraine in addition to playing key roles in the passage of the anticruelty law, Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, signed by President Trump in 2019.
The 33-acre ranch is located off a quiet part of Okeechobee Blvd, where state-of-the-art veterinary and quarantine buildings sit adjacent to bunk houses, a swimming pool and play area, a series of cabins created for expectant mothers to give birth to their litters in a caring environment – fittingly called Puppy Land – and of course, the Hoffman Family Veteran Dog Training Center.
But there’s more happening at the ranch. According to Sasha Baranov, Director of Marketing at Big Dog Ranch Rescue, the Loxahatchee property is expanding in size and scope. Several areas of new construction can be seen around the property, including a 17,000 square-foot boarding lodge that will have four sections. One part of the lodge will be reserved solely for veteran service dogs in the training program, while another will board dogs of active duty service members – free of charge – while they are deployed.
The remaining two sections will offer anyone who has adopted a dog through BDRR exclusive access to the facility at low cost. While the move is meant to provide comfortable and high-quality boarding options, it also works as an incentive for people to adopt through BDRR and possibly even curtail owners from surrendering their pets in certain temporary situations.
Still, as inflation and rental market woes continue, dog adoptions have been down, not only in South Florida, but also nationwide. And owners who surrender their dogs – another troubling trend – cite affordability challenges associated with caring for and feeding a dog along with rising rents and cost of living. But that’s where BDRR — and a handful of similar organizations, like the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League of the Palm Beaches — step in.
When I toured the ranch property last Thursday, I discovered the great lengths BDRR is going to for the sake of finding rescue dogs their forever home while also searching for ways to help owners or those fostering a dog with costs, such as affordable and high-quality dog boarding and veterinary care. But none of that is possible without donations.
After leaving the campus that day, it was, in fact, a healing moment for me. As the wife of a U.S. Navy Veteran, and recognizing the hard work and indisputable positive results of Big Dog Ranch Rescue, it was a true honor to witness firsthand what they’re doing, not only here locally in Palm Beach County, but in the world. I also recognized the sheer cost connected with running an operation like this. It’s naive to believe that an organization this profound can operate purely on grit and goodwill. They need a constant flow of funds to keep it going.
I happily made a donation that very day. If the betterment of both dogs and humans are causes important to you, then perhaps you’ll find a way to contribute as well. For information about Big Dog Ranch Rescue and how to donate, click here.
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