SHEBOYGAN FALLS — There’s a new staff member at the Sheboygan Area Veterans Treatment Court: a dog named Oliver.
Oliver, a Great Pyrenees and Labrador retriever mix, attends monthly court hearings where he wanders off-leash around the courtroom, greeting court attendees and offering support in what can be a stressful environment. He took office about a month and a half ago after the Sheboygan Area Veterans Treatment Court hooked up with the nonprofit Dogs 2 Dog Tags.
The Sheboygan Area Veterans Treatment Court, which began operations in 2012, handles cases from Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Calumet, Winnebago, Fond du Lac, Washington, and Ozaukee counties involving suffering U.S. Army veterans. mental and behavioral health issues that led them to commit crimes.
It gives veterans a second chance – much like Oliver, who was rescued from an animal shelter on the day he was due to be euthanized.
Dogs 2 Dog Tags, a Sheboygan Falls-based organization, rescues dogs, trains them, and then matches them with military veterans suffering from PTSD and anxiety. Since the nonprofit began in 2016, Dogs 2 Dogs Tag has connected 32 pairs of dogs and veterans across Wisconsin.
Oliver was paired with his owner, Jesse Lovell, in March. Lovell, a veteran who suffers an ear injury from his time in the service that causes pain with loud noises, struggled to go out in public before getting a service dog. But Oliver provides Lovell with a distraction from his pain, as well as stability and pressure therapy.
When Veterans Court contacted Dogs 2 Dog Tags to request the assistance of a service dog, executive director Pam Wittkopp said they knew Oliver was the perfect fit and that Lovell was more than happy to bring Oliver to court.
So far, Oliver has attended two of the monthly hearings at Sheboygan Area Veterans Court. While he’s there to help veterans, he tends to befriend everyone in the courtroom — even the judge, Wittkopp said.
“Dogs just know when someone’s stressed out, and they naturally go to them,” Wittkopp said.
How the Dogs 2 Dog Tags program works
The idea for Dogs 2 Dog Tags originated when founder Torre Willadsen was deployed to Afghanistan as a civilian contractor working with bomb-sniffing dogs with the 7th Marine Regiment.
In Afghanistan, one of the Navy dog handlers he worked with, Chris Van Etten, lost both his legs in an explosion while on a night patrol without his dog, Willadsen said.
“The first thing he asked for when he woke up was his dog,” Willadsen said.
Seeing how much Marine morale improved when the dogs were around, Willadsen began working to have the Marines receive their deployment dogs after returning home. Willadsen said he later noticed that many members of the battalion had mental health issues and came up with the idea of rescuing the dogs from the shelters and training them in suicide prevention.
“It really didn’t click until I got home and the first two years we lost a lot of guys to suicide,” Willadsen said. “And then the suicide rates kept going up in all branches and I thought, what better way to save two lives with one mission?”
Dogs 2 Dog Tags was granted nonprofit status in 2016. As of 2017, Willadsen was training 11 dogs on his own. They all lived with him.
But the organization really took off in 2018, when Willadsen met Wittkopp. Wittkopp, a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, was another volunteer at a local humane society. The couple worked to limit kennel aggression among shelter dogs by forming playgroups, and Willadsen invited Wittkopp to help with his nonprofit organization.
“I started working with Torre, and honestly, I joined to work with the dogs. I always told Torre that I was like, ‘You take care of the vets. I’ll take care of the dogs,'” Wittkopp said.
Then one day Willadsen convinced Wittkopp to work with a veteran – Jimmy Adkins, who medically retired from the Army National Guard in September 2020. Adkins got his service dog, Ruby Tuesday, via Dogs 2 Dog Tags in 2019.
“After working with him, everything changed. I realized I was missing the boat, that the vet was the most important aspect,” she said. “The dogs were a big plus. But the vet was the most important side.”
Willadsen said having Wittkopp as executive director helped Dogs 2 Dogs Tag grow and reach more people. Willadsen and Wittkopp are the association’s only staff members, but there are more than 40 volunteers.
Dogs 2 Dog Tags not only matches dogs with veterans, but also provides free dog training for veterans and active military. He also created Laika’s Fund, which allows Dogs 2 Dog Tags to provide financial assistance to service members with dog-related expenses. The fund is named after a dog who completed three tours in Afghanistan and spent his retirement helping train dogs with Dogs 2 Dog Tags until his death last year.
Dogs 2 Dog Tags places dogs with veterans as emotional support animals and works with veterans to help train animals as service dogs until dogs and veterans can take the certification test together service dog training — a process known as cooperative training, Wittkopp said. The service dog training process typically takes several months to a year, Wittkopp said. However, not all dogs are made to be service animals, a status that requires higher levels of obedience than an emotional support animal needs.
Dogs rescued by Dogs 2 Dog Tags live with foster families before being placed with veterans, and Willadsen and Wittkopp do most of the training away from home.
However, the organization recently purchased a training facility with two large indoor heated training areas and is raising funds to add kennels and an outdoor training area, Wittkopp said. Completing the training center will allow Dogs 2 Dog Tags to train up to 10 dogs at a time, instead of two or three, and will allow the organization to board dogs owned by active service members who are deployed.
To request to be matched with a service dog, veterans complete a one-page application on the Dogs 2 Dog Tags website, which is reviewed by Willadsen, Wittkopp and one of the organization’s mental health volunteers. . Dogs 2 Dog Tags verifies that veterans have been honorably discharged and have no criminal history of crimes against children or animals or violent offenses that could potentially put a dog in danger, Wittkopp said. Eligible veterans then have a verbal interview with Willadsen, and once the dogs are ready for placement, the organization reviews the waitlist and chooses the veteran from the list who best matches the dog’s personality and who needs a companion the most, Wittkopp said. The Dogs 2 Dog Tags waiting list is less than 20 people.
Service dogs can have a big impact on veterans
Service dogs can save lives, Wittkopp said.
Suicide rates among American veterans have always been disproportionately higher than the rest of the population. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that in 2017, the suicide rate among veterans was about 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, adjusting for population differences in age and gender.
Wittkopp pointed to a recent placement to demonstrate the impact an assistance dog can have. She did not provide the veteran’s name for confidentiality reasons.
The veteran was in a dark place mentally before being paired with a dog, Wittkopp said. He had a disability that made it difficult for him to feel comfortable in public, so he never left his apartment.
“The way he told me the walls were closing in on him, very quickly. He stayed home the whole time,” Wittkopp said.
After being paired with the dog, the veteran gained confidence to go out in public. Where he used to sense stares from strangers, now strangers nod and smile at him, he told Wittkopp.
“This weekend he went to a Cubs game, and last weekend he went to a Mariners game, and then he went to a World War II reenactment. He does all that, and the whole world just opened up to him. Wittkop said. “He’s gone from the world just being his little apartment getting closer to him to now just being outside – every day he does something. It’s life changing for these guys.”
Likewise, Adkins said her dog Ruby Tuesday (Ruby for short) did a lot to ease her anxiety.
“She’s helped me be softer,” Adkins said, “She’s a sweetheart, so (when) I start to get a little fidgety and upset, she’ll pop right in the face like, ‘Hey daddy, relax- you. ‘”
Adkins said Dogs 2 Dog Tags continues to provide support for veterans and dogs long after they’ve been placed together.
“With their program, it’s not just ‘here’s your dog and it’s done.’ It’s constant contact — checking in, seeing how things are going,” Adkins said. “It’s almost like another family, because they’re still there, they keep helping in any way they can.”