A purpose well served

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2018 /

Writer: Allyson Plessner / Photographer: Breezi Harrell 

Service dogs

Founder and CEO of Sierra Delta, BJ Ganem, enjoys some time with a couple of future service dogs.

Sierra Delta is improving the lives of veterans across the nation, one dog at a time

“In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy… to wit the wag of a dog’s tail,” reads the opening credits of beloved Disney movie “Lady and the Tramp.” Of course, Disney doesn’t claim ownership of this quote, but it’s easy to imagine that it’s true owner, Josh Billings—famed American humorist, contemporary of Mark Twain and obvious dog lover—would approve of his phrase being stamped on a movie about the unwavering loyalty and unending capacity for love of these four-legged companions.

Perhaps no one is more deserving of that unyielding devotion than a veteran. These heroic servicemen and women often return home from war to find a world where they don’t quite fit, a world unprepared to handle the physical and emotional damage these heroes have incurred—but a service dog helps to bridge that gap. Many of these veterans rely on the assistance and support of service dogs to help them adjust to their new normal.

“Service dogs are reducing suicidal thoughts in veterans by 85 percent,” explains Shelley Crawford, director of operations for Sierra Delta, a Nantucket-based organization dedicated to supporting the physical and emotional wellness of veterans through the use of service dogs. “We saw that service dogs were becoming more prevalent in aiding veterans, especially ones with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries after returning from war,” says Crawford, who is also the director of operations for Nantucket’s Holidays for Heroes.

“The VA came out with a study that 22 servicemen a day were killing themselves on American soil,” Crawford adds. The goal of Sierra Delta is to reduce that number through education about and advocacy for the vital role service dogs play in helping veterans manage their injuries, even ones not apparent to the naked eye. To do this, the organization has set out to create a network for veterans and service dog training facilities with one cohesive standard and one united purpose.

“All these guys who could use a service dog weren’t able to secure the dogs. They didn’t know where to go, and there wasn’t much of a support system for that,” says Crawford, explaining that the demand for service dog training facilities is rising because of their success in helping partner veterans with a dog at no cost to the veteran. Sierra Delta aims to bring “partner providers,” meaning training facilities around the country following the same high standard, together into one unified network, protected and supported by the funding of Sierra Delta.

“It’s the most unbelievably moving thing I’ve ever witnessed—the bond between the dog and the veteran. They just melt with these dogs,” says Crawford. She tells the story of a veteran who starts to get anxious partway through a conversation and his dog is there to comfort him before he even realizes his anxiety has flared up. “It’s just amazing,” she says. Josh Billings once again puts it best in stating, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”

Sierra Delta has become a nationally recognized organization, with partners like Blue Buffalo and PetSmart, but will always be rooted in its island home of Nantucket, where events like the Figawi regatta and charity ball offer great opportunities to spread the word about the organization and its inspiring work. At the end of the day, Sierra Delta exists to support training facilities committed to protecting veterans, protecting their dogs, and protecting the vital relationship between the two. For Crawford, who recently married a veteran and ambassador for Sierra Delta, the best part of her job is the community it builds. Sierra Delta is a family, and what family is complete without a dog?

Allyson Plessner

Allyson Plessner is a former editorial intern for Cape Cod Life and now works for the publication as a staff writer and digital media coordinator. Born in Florida, Allyson has been a lifelong summer resident of the Cape. She is a recent alumna of the College of Charleston, located in Charleston, South Carolina, where she completed bachelor’s degrees in both English and Spanish. In her free time, Allyson is an avid sailor, beach-goer, and—like her fellow Cape Cod Life colleagues—a dog-lover.