Michael Ragsdell wants to help other military veterans experience the same success he did.
Last year, the 35-year-old who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was paired through Warriors' Best Friend with Nani, a 3-year-old black Weimaraner mix.
Nani proved such a blessing to Ragsdell in his recovery that he wanted to repay Warriors' Best Friend in some way.
“After eight months, I asked if they wanted any help,” said Ragsdell, who resides in Kansas City. “They (greatly) helped me, and I wanted to be a part of of it.”
He's now going through an apprenticeship to become a trainer for Warriors' Best Friend, which is based just north of Liberty and seeks to match service dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD or severe brain trauma.
Many of the dogs that Warriors selects for its program come from Great Plains SPCA shelters in Independence and Merriam, Kansas. The two organizations will host a first-ever fundraiser on Sept. 30 – a 5K run/walk at the Warriors' property.
Ragsdell has been out of the military for five years, and the California native met his eventual wife at Fort Leavenworth and ultimately stayed in the metro area. But until being paired with Nani, whom he's had about 18 months, his PTSD largely kept him from being alone outside his house. Nani can sense when an anxiety nightmare might be starting, he said, and provides the necessary comfort.
“I'd been through about every therapy and medication there is,” said Ragsdell, whose military career included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “This was a last-ditch effort to get some kind of normalcy.”
Samantha Jeffers, director of development for Warriors' Best Friend, said the family run organization has been in the works for a few years but only this year established headquarters on family property outside of Liberty. It currently has a small refurbished house serving as an office, with a separate barn with kennels for up to seven dogs. Future plans include some tiny houses for the veterans who currently stay at a nearby hotel when they arrive to be matched with a service dog. Jeffers' sister is the dogs' trainer.
“My family's had the land since the 1850s,” she said.
Of course, not every canine is cut out to be the type of service dog Warriors' seeks. Jeffers said they're not breed-specific, but ideally the dog is at least 60 pounds, stands 23 inches high and is between 8 months and 2 years old, to allow a companionship of some length.
Warriors' takes a mix of high-energy and lower-energy dogs, as different veterans require different dogs to best fit their planned lifestyle.
It's not that a small breed can't be a service dog at all, Ragsdell said, but for Warriors' purpose they wouldn't fit. A dog has to possess enough size and girth to serve as a brace if necessary, or to be a blocker between the veteran owner and potential stressor. Only one in about 500 dogs is a good possibility, and Jeffers said Great Plains personnel keep an eye out for when such canines arrive at their shelter.
“They have to be big enough to support the weight of a grown man,” Jeffers said.
Classes to match dog and veteran happen about every two or three months, Jeffers said, and they last nine days on site, in a low-stress environment. So far, Warriors' has had about 20 successful matches.
“It's amazing how in that short of time you can see the change in an individual (veteran),” Ragsdell said.
He works with dogs to prepare them as possible matches, slowly working up to a series of 25 commands.
“It's basic obedience, with positive-based reinforcement,” Ragsdell said. “Every dog wants to work. We slowly integrate more commands. It takes a lot of time and patience.”
Jeffers and Ragsdell both say dogs were a big part of their family growing up.
“They were something I was always passionate about,” Jeffers said.
“I had a German shepherd when I was a kid who would walk me to school, then walk home,” Ragsdell said. When he got out of the school, the dog was waiting to walk back home with him.
Best friend, indeed.
To register for the 5K, which is at 10940 NE 104th St., Kansas City, visit pawsontheprairie5k.org . Cost is $30 and event begins at 9 a.m. There will be separate races with and without dogs, as well as a half-mile kids fun run ($10). A kids zone with a petting zoo and a dog agility course also will be on site.