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Dogs Retrieve Freedom for Vets, Kids

WAVERLY, Iowa (CBS2/FOX28) -- Two very different groups with special needs are getting help from one special group of dogs.

The Waverly nonprofit organization Retrieving Freedom is training those service dogs here in Eastern Iowa.

Traveler is just one of 15 of the dogs that Retrieving Freedom is training. He can open the front door of a home, follow a command to go inside and search for intruders, and bark to alert the homeowner if he finds anything -- and that's just one service he offers. Those services can be priceless for veterans like Chad Johnson, who lives with his service dog, Copper.

"(He can help me) to turn light switches on if night terrors get into me at night, and get me to realize I'm here at home and not overseas," Johnson, who has been deployed three times, said.

That isn't what Scott Dewey expected his dogs would do when he started training Labrador retrievers in 1998. But in 2009, he realized there was a shortage of service dogs for veterans in the Midwest.

"It was horrible. Guys trying for years and years to get a service dog, and the public awareness of the needs of a service dog were almost nonexistent," Dewey said.

But since Retrieving Freedom started just 18 months ago, Dewey and his partner in Mississippi have placed nine dogs with veterans -- and children with autism. They train different types of dogs to suit the different needs of those communities.

Retrieving Freedom has also started partnerships with local schools, libraries, and even Wartburg College. They teach kids like Caitlin Sanderman, 13, to start training their puppies before they go through the full program. Sanderman taught a yellow lab named Gauge for six months before turning him over to Retrieving Freedom.

"It's kind of hard at first knowing that I'll have to give him up, but then I remember that he's going to someone else who needs him, and I don't need him as much as they do," Sanderman said.

The Recovering Freedom training room includes a number of household items and situations, including light switches, a refrigerator, a laundry machine. They also train dogs to fetch a prosthetic leg.

"He wouldn't care if I was missing a leg, he wouldn't care if I was missing an arm, he doesn't care about the judgmental things of society today. That's why they work," Dewey said about the dogs.

Johnson said, that's why he's at Retrieving Freedom every day, helping to train more dogs for more veterans like him.

"Copper has helped me and prevented me from ending my life because of the stuff that I didn't want to go through anymore," Johnson said. "If I can help another veteran do that, it makes me know that I can have a purpose again and I can actually do something."

Retrieving Freedom is just $70,000 away from being able to build a new facility that would include a number of new amenities for training and for their human clients, as well.

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