By Kaley Lynch
Niagara Gazette — WHEATFIELD — When Zira the pit bull first arrived at the SPCA of Niagara, she was antisocial and terrified of people.
On Monday, the 3½ year old female's tail was wagging furiously as she happily played on the floor with a U.S. Army veteran.
It was a demonstration to go along with the official launch of Dog Tags Niagara, a program that pairs local veterans with dogs from the SPCA who have been at the shelter for a long time or have certain behavioral issues. The program aims to be therapeutic for both the dogs and the veterans, some of who may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“With veterans, transitioning from a military life is huge,” said Army veteran Joe Ruszala, co-founder of Paws and Patriots at the Erie County SPCA and one of the driving forces behind Dog Tags Niagara. “Some of them feel like they no longer have a reason to get up in the morning, but coming in, dealing with these dogs, that gives them a reason.”
Veterans who sign up for the program won't do typical volunteer jobs, said Sheryl Townsend, behavioral specialist for the Niagara County shelter. Rather, they'll be paired with one or two dogs that need individual attention and their mission is to help make the dogs adoptable.
“I choose the dogs that need the most one-on-one time, who might need some extra training,” Townsend said. “The dogs benefit from the extra attention and the veterans get a feeling of accomplishment when they see improvement in the dogs.”
Three local veterans have been training for up to six weeks to take part in the program. They will provide support for other veterans who start volunteering with Dog Tags Niagara.
Many of the dogs selected for the program are pit bulls. Ruszala believes that the sometimes-feared dogs are a good representation of the veterans.
“We are pairing the pit bulls of the canine world with the pit bulls of the human world,” he said. “Like pit bulls, veterans are stigmatized. They come back from deployment with difficulty integrating back into society.”
In fact, the Dog Tags Niagara logo features a soldier and a pit bull.
Matthew Poirier, a Marine veteran and a candidate for Dog Tags Niagara, said he feels an affiliation with the dogs in the program.
“Veterans come back from overseas feeling neglected, just like these dogs,” he said. “This program brings in two segments of society who are not catered to and it kind of caters to them."
Representatives from Dog Tags Niagara will be available from noon to 4 p.m. today at the SPCA of Niagara to sign up recruits and field questions about the program. For more information, call the shelter at 731-4368.