By Emily Loughridge
EL RENO – Versa K9 for Vets is a veteran- operated, not-for-profit organization based out on El Reno’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
The organization locates and trains service dogs free of charge for veterans who need it.
Red Avery, the head of Versa, served in the U.S. Army and has since returned home to find a way to help his brothers and sisters.
The goal behind Versa is to help veterans in any way possible – which for Avery meant free service dog training.
He said the goal is to get veterans out of their homes and ease them back into what life used to be.
Avery’s program works with veterans and rescue dogs to give both a resemblance of a normal life, including getting out of the house, being around crowds, and understanding how to cope with disabilities.
“We never ask the veterans for anything because they’ve already paid enough with what they’ve done. They wrote a blank check to the government – up to their life – and I feel that they should not have to pay for anything else,” Avery said.
Versa has five trainers on staff who were all trained through the American Kennel Club (AKC), including Avery, Kathy, Alex, Keith, Leigh, and Lee.
Over the last three years, Avery estimates that Versa has helped around 15 veterans, which may seem like a small number, but Avery said even if he helped one veteran in three years it would be worth it.
“You’re used to doing something all the time in the military and then you come home, and you just sit,” Avery said. “They don’t prepare you for when you come home.”
A lot of veterans become closed in their homes once they return from service Avery mentioned, which he knows from personal experience.
He said he used to sit around his house and do nothing before his wife, Kathy made him go to another company’s service dog program.
Avery found he enjoyed training the dogs and helping other veterans. He said he wishes he would’ve found something like it sooner when he was struggling.
One of Avery’s goals with Versa is to build a safe place for veterans, somewhere they feel like they can come and be themselves.
Once a veteran comes to Versa with the goal of training a service dog, the first step is to find the right dog for the veteran.
Avery said this means looking at the veteran’s lifestyle and deciding what breed might be best for them.
The next step is to go to a shelter, a commonly used shelter is one in Purcell, and from there letting the veteran meet several dogs until the right dog is found.
Avery said the veteran and dog spend three months bonding and going over basic commands before starting their six-to-seven-month training course with Versa.
NEXT COURSE STARTS JULY 16
The course is broken into three parts to ensure the dog and veteran are ready to be on their own. The class meets every Sunday at 2 p.m. with the next course beginning Sunday, July 16.
Part one is the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) section, which lasts around two months. This helps strengthen the bond between the dog and veteran while making basic commands instinct.
The commands include sit, stay, lay, leave it, leash walk, 20-foot leave, and eight-foot recall. Avery said these basic commands are some that every dog should be able to do.
The second part is public access training, which lasts two months; Avery said this is where he can tell who is going to make it through to graduation and who will not.
The class will go to various public places, such as grocery stores, retail stores, restaurants, and hotels.
The pairs work on the basic commands learned in the first part, get the dog comfortable riding on elevators and walking on stairs, and teaching the dog to ignore distractions and remain focused on their human counterpart.
The last two months of the class is task training, meaning the dogs learn commands to help mitigate the disability of the veteran.
Avery mentioned in this section the dogs learn how to assist veterans with their more specific needs, including PTSD, anxiety, diabetes, heart issues, and mobility needs.
He continued to point out a few unique tasks he has taught over the years, including turning on lights to help a veteran who might suffer from night terrors or finding and leading a veteran to an exit if a veteran becomes overly anxious in public.
After making it through all three stages, the pair graduates and becomes a certified service dog.
From then on, the veteran and the dog have each other’s sixes Avery explained – they have each other’s backs in every situation.
“The meaning behind Versa is to turn the page. Go to another page and basically, you’re starting the story over again. You’re starting your life over again,” Avery said. “The dog gets a new life, the veteran’s getting a new life.”