Loss of son inspires dog therapy program for wounded veterans
In a house on the top of a grassy hill in Coarsegold lives a father, a mother and two dogs who miss Benjamin Pleitez.
The 25-year-old died in Afghanistan in 2012, where Pleitez served as a medic with the Army National Guard. Back home, he also cared for pets and had dreams of one day opening a dog breeding and training kennel.
His parents are working to keep their son’s dream alive. Salvador and Dianna Pleitez recently founded Doc’s Dogs For Vets, which will train shelter dogs to become service dogs for wounded veterans at no cost to recipients. Veterans’ wounds can be physical or mental/emotional, such as veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. The nonprofit will adopt its first four dogs in May.
The project helps the Pleitezes cope with Benjamin’s death. Salvador says an accident, which remains unclear, at an Army base in Afghanistan claimed his son’s life. Benjamin was deployed out of Fresno about four months prior and was awarded more than a dozen medals for his service.
“I think there is some healing power in it,” Salvador says of starting Doc’s Dogs For Vets, “keeping you away from thinking the worst and knowing that you are doing something for somebody else in his honor, that it’s not all lost.”
The Pleitezes moved from Turlock to Coarsegold a couple of months after Benjamin died. They needed a change. They brought their son’s dogs, Scarlett and Cadence, with them. Benjamin rescued the stout mutts, one black, one orange, from an animal shelter.
There was something in his heart for animals.
Benjamin taught them well, and it went beyond “training,” Salvador says. They seemed to have grown smarter because of him. Benjamin had worked as veterinarian assistant for a short time.
Benjamin also came to the aid of people in need off the battlefield. After Haiti was hit by a large earthquake in 2010 that killed tens of thousands, he and a friend raised money for supplies and volunteered helping people in the country for about a month.
The Pleitezes hope the dogs in the Doc’s Dogs For Vets program come to the rescue like their son did. They know a veteran with a service dog who wakes him when he’s having a nightmare and heard an account of another veteran who decided not to kill himself because he didn’t want his dog to be alone without care.
Salvador, a civil engineer, and Dianna, a former elementary school teacher, are not professional dog trainers, but they plan to enlist the help of people who are.
It’s amazing to see the healing that happens with animals.
The dogs will go through four phases of training that will last about 10 months. The dogs’ first stop: Prison.
Valley State Prison in Chowchilla has a 10-week dog training program where prisoners train shelter dogs in basic dog obedience commands under the direction of a volunteer dog trainer and a registered veterinary technician. After that, the dogs will be sent to various homes for a couple of months to get them better socialized with people and regular environments.
Finally, two phases of advanced training are expected to last a few months, when local trainers train the dogs to help with issues specific to the veterans they are matched with. Salvador says they will likely start inviting veterans to apply for a dog in late summer or fall.
Doc’s Dogs For Vets hopes to raise about $10,000 per dog to help fund training and veterinarian bills. A fundraiser 10K run/walk will be held March 20 on 40 acres that the Pleitezes own in Raymond. They want to eventually have a kennel on the property, where they also plan to build a home.
Doc’s Dogs For Vets is also a way for the Pleitezes to help the soldiers who served with Benjamin.
We have tried to be in the positive.
“I think it’s important for them to know that we are OK without Ben,” Salvador says, “that it’s not their fault, you know?”
His father thinks Benjamin would be proud.
“He would be pleased that in his honor, this is happening.”
Support Doc’s Dogs For Vets
A fundraiser 10K Memorial Run/Walk to support the nonprofit will begin at 8 a.m. March 20 at a 40-acre plot the Pleitezes own in Raymond, at the corner of Brahman Court and Olive Ranch Road. GPS navigation won’t work for most devices in Raymond (see the attached map), but there will be signs posted.
Early registration is $50 and can be purchased online at docsdogs4vets.com. Day-of registration, which begins at 7 a.m., is $55 or $40 for children 12 and younger. Registration includes breakfast and a T-shirt. Breakfast-only is $12 for adults and $7 for children. Each runner who registers early can dedicate their run to a loved one who will be listed in the program and on the runner’s T-shirt.
Donations can also be made online at docsdogs4vets.com or mailed to Doc’s Dogs For Vets, P.O. Box 326, Raymond, CA 93653.