For 15 years, Gerald Whittaker has been training dogs at the Assistance Service Dog Educational Center in the old schoolhouse north of town.
Some of the dogs he trains are for veterans who have traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, or both.
“I’ve placed 89 dogs with veterans in the last 12 years,” he said. “We have dogs in 30 states.”
John Cook of Fresno is one of those veterans. Ivy, a female golden retriever, has been his service dog for about two years.
“She’s just been amazing,” he said.
Cook, 34, is an former Navy aviation mechanic who was in the service for eight years. While stationed at Lemoore, he underwent what was supposed to be routine surgery on a broken leg.
“It went horribly wrong,” he said. “I ended up getting an MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection and had nine surgeries. I had my right leg amputated below the knee.”
That was five years ago.
“I took it very poorly,” he said. “I ended up addicted to painkillers. I became a shell of a person. I was isolated. I gained 75 pounds. I didn’t want to live anymore. I escaped into the medication.”
He said he was diagnosed with PTSD.
Luckily, he turned his life around with help from Our Heroes’ Dreams veterans support organization, the Veterans Administration and his wife, who stuck with him.
He learned about Whittaker’s dog-training operation in Woodlake, visited several times and eventually connected with Ivy.
“She’s such a well-behaved dog,” he said. “She can open and close doors and turn on and off lights.”
When he’s using crutches, “if I drop something, she picks it up for me. She makes so many tasks easier.”
If he has to adjust his prosthesis while out walking, he can steady himself by holding on to Ivy.
If he gets anxious, “I just kind of stop and start petting her,” he said. “For depression and anxiety, she’s amazing.”
Whittaker and his group deserve credit, he said.
“Gerald is awesome,” Cook said. “It’s a mom and pop organization. I loved working with the organization.”
Whittaker has about 18 dogs in training and several volunteers who help him.
Tim McFadden, a retired teacher, is one of them.
“It’s neat to help the veterans,” he said.
Whittaker, a retired dam operator at Lake Kaweah, said he has been training dogs since he was 8 years old. He has trained diabetes dogs, seizure dogs and dogs for people in wheelchairs.
Several years ago, he got a call from Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego asking if he would train dogs for veterans.
The hospital sent up a suicidal veteran with PTSD. Whittaker found him a dog and started a two-week program to teach the veteran to work with the dog effectively.
A week later, a doctor from San Diego called the veteran to find out how he was doing, then asked to speak with Whittaker.
“He said, ‘What did you do?’ ” Whittaker recalled. “I said, ‘I gave him a dog.’ He said, ‘I think you’ve done more in a week than I’ve done in a year.’ ”
Dogs are very sensitive to a person’s mood, Whittaker said: “Veterans tell me all the time that they’ll be having a nightmare and the dog will wake them up.”
A fully trained service dog knows 90 commands. It’s best to start the dog at 8 weeks of age and train them for two years, he said.
There is no cost to the veteran.
Anyone who would like to volunteer as a dog trainer, apply for a service dog or sponsor a dog for a veteran should call Whittaker at 559-804-1905.