Mary Cortani has trained military police dogs for explosive and narcotics detection, trained search and rescue dogs, and founded her own company, K9 Coach Plus. Based on her work and her volunteer efforts, the Red Cross named Cortani one of their heroes for 2011.
Talk with Cortani for a few minutes and it’s clear which of her accomplishments means the most to her. Operation Freedoms Paws, which Cortani started two years ago, changes the lives of veterans learning to cope with an injury by providing a service dog that can ease the healing process.
Gilroy Patch: Why did you start Operation Freedoms Paws?
Mary Cortani: Three years ago, a Marine that I worked with at Pathway Home told me how frustrated he was because he wasn’t able to get a service dog. His doctors had advised him to get one and he wanted one, but the organizations that provide animals are backed up and people can wait for several years to get a dog.
I’d worked with dogs for most of my life. I’d spent nine years in the military training animals and training the soldiers who handled them. It occurred to me that I had the background and experience to step in and help our veterans get service dogs faster. I knew how much a dog could help some of these folks coming home and I knew that I could train dogs and match them with people who needed them.
Patch: How does a dog help a veteran who has suffered trauma or injury?
Cortani: Dogs help in a few ways. They provide a sense of security and can calm an individual. Dogs can be trained to perform specific tasks for an injured person. For example, a large dog can be a support for a person learning to walk again or offer reassurance when they’re walking through a crowd of people.
Dogs also help in the cycle of vigilance and isolation.
Patch: What do you mean by that?
Cortani: Hypervigilance can be an aftereffect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It means being constantly on guard. This constant alert state is hard to maintain day after day. One way that people cope with this symptom is to withdraw and take themselves out of situations where they feel stress or anxiety. It’s an instinctive reaction but it can lead to isolation, which isn’t helpful.
A dog can be the first link to healing by keeping their owner from withdrawing. A dog senses through chemical and biological changes when a person is anxious and can redirect the owner’s attention to the here and now, lessen their anxiety and keep a person from isolating themselves.
Patch: I can see why you are motivated to get service dogs to veterans who need them.
Cortani: These people have given so much to our country. They’ve sacrificed to protect our freedoms, which is why I called the organization Operation Freedoms Paws. Things that many of us take for granted–going into a crowded store, for example–can be a challenge for veterans who deal with PTSD. It’s so satisfying for me to see a dog make a difference.
Patch: Most of your animals come from rescue organizations, correct?
Cortani: About 70 percent of our dogs come from shelters and rescue organizations. We get about 10 percent of our animals from great organizations like Guide Dogs of the Desert and National Disaster Search and Rescue Dogs.
Often these dogs are ready for a career change. They’re ideal for work with veterans. The remaining 20 percent of our dogs are brought to us by their owners–soldiers who have a dog already, that they’ve gotten on their own, and that they want to train to be a certified service dog.
Patch: How do you know if a dog in a shelter will be a good service dog?
Cortani: I spend time with the dog to assess its temperament and personality before I take it from the shelter. I see how the dog reacts when touched, how it responds to tone of voice, whether it’s more interested in me or more interested in a toy. After working with animals for 30 years, I have a sense of the traits an animal should have to be a good service dog.
Patch: You’ve trained 69 dogs and matched them with veterans in the last two years. This is a pretty high rate, isn’t it?
Cortani: We are able to work with more injured individuals and dogs by pulling the great dogs that are available in shelters and rescue groups and matching them to the right individual and then training them to train their own dog. This allows us to work with more injured individuals and begin the healing process.
Patch: But certifying a dog as a service dog is expensive.
Cortani: It costs approximately $13,000 per dog. We provide the training, service vests, leashes, collars, crates, initial veterinarian care and certification costs. There is no cost to the veteran or injured individual in our program.
Patch: You’ve funded most of Operation Freedoms Paws yourself.
Cortani: I know there’s a need out there and want to help as much as I can. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my own experience coming back home after serving, it’s that the government and the Veteran's Administration (VA) won’t provide 100 percent of what a returning veteran needs. The VA is a great organization but it’s stretched thin. A veteran needs the support of people in the community.
Patch: What support does Operation Freedoms Paws need from the community?
Cortani: Donations help and are needed on an ongoing basis. We’ve been fortunate to have the support of people like Don and Diane Baer, Toni Wolf, Janet King, Nicole Martinez and Jeremiah Gaches. We’ve also had help from businesses in Gilroy including First Street Coffee and especially Station 55.
Bobby and Fran Beaudet of Station 55 have been a huge support for us. They’ve helped with fundraising, putting together golf tournaments and have opened their doors at their restaurant to us every Saturday.
The people in the training class bring their dogs to lunch at Station 55, which is part of the public access training. Getting training dogs used to sitting quietly under the table at a restaurant is a bigger challenge than you’d expect.
Patch: It is pretty funny to watch your class leave Station 55. A dozen dogs suddenly come out from under the tables and most of the other folks in the restaurant are surprised.
Cortani: (Laughing) Right. They had no idea the dogs were there.
Patch: So if folks want to help veterans get service dogs and train their own dogs, what should they do?
Cortani: They can sign up for public classes and train their own dogs in obedience as the funds from those public classes help us fund the service dog program. They can also make a donation online or they can mail a check to Operation Freedoms Paws, 777 First Street, PMB 515, Gilroy, CA 95020. All donations are tax deductible.
Patch: And dog lovers can also sign up for your six-week obedience class?
Cortani: Yes. We offer classes for dogs that range from puppy training to advanced obedience. We offer agility exercises for fun, as well as Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog training. By signing up for the public obedience classes, you will support our service dog program.