Mainstreams: A Dog is this Veteran’s Best Friend

by Paul Rignell
Contributing Writer
Retired after nearly 20 years as a U.S. Marine and a later career in information technology, Minnesota native Gordon Finley now works part time weekdays in a security role at Rosemount High School.

As part of his daily shift, it is Finley’s responsibility to ensure the students disperse peacefully from the school halls after their final class hour ends at 2:15 p.m. He secures all doors that are supposed to be locked after school hours. There is also some desk work where he records student attendance data that he gathers from substitute teachers working any given day (regular faculty record their own attendance data).

Unlike many other school security officers, Finley works with a partner – and a protector. Finley’s partner is the four-legged Frankie, a border collie-springer spaniel mix who has been part of Finley’s family and home in Eagan for five years.

Photo by Paul Rignell  U.S. Marine Corps veteran Gordon Finley, accompanied by his service dog Frankie, shares a story with Zimmerman American Legion Riders road captain Jeff Hechtel.
Photo by Paul Rignell
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Gordon Finley, accompanied by his service dog Frankie, shares a story with Zimmerman American Legion Riders road captain Jeff Hechtel.

Frankie has accompanied his owner to work throughout this school year after the dog was certified as a service animal last July through Patriot Assistance Dogs, a training program based in Detroit Lakes.

The organization recently received a $10,000 gift from a group of philanthropic motorcycle riders in Zimmerman.

Founded by trainer Linda Wiedewitsch, the PAD program serves to prepare dogs for aiding veterans who have been diagnosed with battling post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or a related psychiatric issue.

Finley says it was clear that he was battling some form of depression around the same time when his dog Frankie joined the family. Medical staff from the Veterans Affairs health care system in Minneapolis later diagnosed Finley with PTSD.

Frankie has been a good friend to Finley throughout their years together, but the bond has grown stronger now that the dog is certified to accompany his proud owner to work and virtually everywhere else, including meals at restaurants and most return appointments at the VA.

An exception to their routine of being together at almost every moment happened when Finley was at the VA for a recent colonoscopy, he said.

Having survived military service that involved him in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Finley says that life back in Minnesota felt deeply dark at one point.

“My depression got so bad that I couldn’t face sunlight,” he said.
Finley adds that he was not friendly to the idea of hosting a dog when a daughter brought Frankie, who had been living in a shelter, to the family home.

“I told my wife (Kathy) I didn’t want a dog, but he jumped on my lap and we’ve been friends ever since,” Finley said.

“This is my buddy, my pal. He puts a big smile on my face.”

Frankie helps his owner to overcome the depression, and the dog is dedicated to its trained role of service.
“If I get really depressed, he’ll jump on me. He wakes me up when I’m having nightmares. He picks up on (cues) faster than I do,” Finley said.

Their partnership is one of nearly 100 pairings that Patriot Assistance Dogs has assisted with since Wiedewitsch turned her focus to coaching canines for this type of service in 2012.

Earlier during a 30-year career of training service animals, Wiedewitsch prepared dogs to assist adult owners who were vision-impaired or had other physical disabilities.

PAD reports that an estimated $10,000 is needed to match and prepare each dog candidate for service to a veteran. A dog undergoes hip and elbow x-rays along with a blood profile and dental and cardiac exams before advancing through the program.

Each PAD dog is microchipped for permanent identification. Training costs along with expenses for supplies (such as collars and leashes) are also part of the $10,000 package.

Wiedewitsch says the program does not look for certain breeds of dogs as much as for the right temperament or appropriate size. She said the dogs that can work best as service animals are calm and friendly. Among the canine candidates for service to veterans, Wiedewitsch said PAD can be “partial to couch potatoes” or less active dogs because often the affected veterans are prone to staying in their homes with as little interaction in the outside world as necessary.

She said the best dogs for the PAD program usually are larger, weighing from 50 to 80 pounds.

“They are easily visible,” Wiedewitsch said. “If you saw a German shepherd (guarding another person), it would slow you down a little bit.”

PAD received one of its latest gifts of $10,000 from a group of American Legion Riders, philanthropic motorcycle riders with a local chapter based at American Legion Post 560 in Zimmerman.

The American Legion Riders from Post 560 opened their chapter in December 2015. They have joined other Legion Riders chapters from around the country in raising money to fund scholarships for children of military personnel who have died during service, but Steve Andersen from the Zimmerman chapter says that his group also wanted to support more of a regional program that benefits veterans.

“We were looking for a cause to help veterans with PTSD,” Andersen said. “What a difference (Patriot Assistance Dogs) makes.”

He said some Legion Riders chapters have hosted community pig roast dinners to raise funds for their causes, and actually the 30 members from the Zimmerman chapter rode their motorcycles to Monticello for a pancake breakfast hosted Feb. 5 by that local chapter.

For its fundraising, the Zimmerman chapter sought and received a state gaming license to hold some special bingo events through the year.

The group has held some of the bingo events in Zimmerman but brought others to Monticello and to Becker, where Andersen and his Legion Riders friends hosted a bingo afternoon Jan. 28 at the Pebble Creek Golf Club where each lucky bingo winner could go home with a valuable designer purse.

Finley and Frankie were at the golf club that day to join in celebrating the Zimmerman Legion Riders’ first gift of $10,000 to Patriot Assistance Dogs.

The Zimmerman chapter’s upcoming bingo events are scheduled for April 1 at the Friendly Buffalo bar and grill in Big Lake and May 13 at the Captain’s Lakeside Grille in Isanti.

Andersen invites community members to learn more about the Zimmerman Legion Riders by following the group’s page on Facebook. The group meets at 6:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday each month at Post 560 in Zimmerman, and Andersen also welcomes phone calls about the group at 320-980-1805.

For more about Patriot Assistance Dogs, visit www.patriotassistancedogs.org.