Satellite High Grad Shweta Patel Spends Summer Raising Patriot Service Dogs Puppy Set for Donation to Veteran in Need
By Maria Sonnenberg // July 29, 2023
Patel plans to become a veterinarian, will attend University of Massachusetts in Boston
BREVARD COUNTY • SATELLITE BEACH, FLORIDA – For many teens, the summer between high school graduation and the beginning of the college years makes for precious time spent hanging out with friends and taking it easy. For Shweta Patel, however, it was the summer she raised a puppy she knew could never be hers.
Before graduating from Satellite Beach High this year, Shweta had become acquainted with Patriot Service Dogs, a Florida nonprofit that trains dogs that are later donated to veterans.
The organization was looking for “foster summer schools” in the community, so the pups could get further socialized and accustomed to unfamiliar sounds and situations before heading back for further training. Shweta thought raising one of the Patriot pups would be a perfect way to give back before heading on to the next chapter in her life.
“I’ve always been passionate about animals,” Shweta said.
Thus it came to pass that seven-month-old chocolate Labrador Quill spent his summer with Shweta and her family.
Like all Patriot Service Dogs, Quill began his training at Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Ocala. By the time he was welcomed into the Patel household, Quill already had mastered the basic training that will serve as the foundation for the advanced education he will need to function as a service dog.
However, Quill is still a puppy, and as such is prone to high energy and mischievousness.
“It was a major adjustment for us, but it has been so rewarding to see how far he has come along,” said Shweta’s mom Daksha.
Shweta takes Quill everywhere she goes.
“We work on him not getting distracted by anything, but all the experiences were new to him,” she said. “He had not been outside the prison.”
Getting up at dawn to take a dog out is not a teen – or anyone’s – idea of fun, but Shweta has been a trooper with Quill’s 6:30 a.m. potty breaks. The large pup also needs plenty of exercising and feeding, which she is happy to provide.
“My daughter has really stepped up to the task,” said Daksha Patel. “She has sacrificed her last summer before going to college to raise Quill.”
Shweta, who plans to become a veterinarian, will join the freshman class at the University of Massachusetts in Boston come September. She hopes to bring one of the Patriot dogs with her when she returns as a sophomore. She has also been offered an internship at Patriot Service Dogs next summer.
Organization founder and president Julie Sanderson is very impressed with Shweta’s interest and dedication.
“She has been a wonderful addition,” Sanderson said. “Someone just getting out of high school is not usually interested in this level of commitment. She was very self-sufficient, a breath of fresh air.”
Sanderson launched Patriot Service Dogs in 2009 after working with other organizations that trained dogs to serve individuals with disabilities.
“I wanted to create an organization that focused on serving vets,” she said.
Any honorably discharged vet is eligible to receive a service dog from the group at no cost. The program has helped individuals struggling with PTSD, physical issues or military sexual trauma. Twenty-dogs are currently in varying stages of training at the women’s prison.
Inmates selected for the voluntary WOOF (Women Offering Obedience and Friendship) program must have no history of violent crimes. Most have run afoul of the law because of a DUI, drug use or similar crimes. The inmates help the dogs and vice versa.
“The inmates gain confidence through the program and develop their personal skills,” Sanderson said. “We say they are gaining tools for their toolbox.”
Whenever an inmate leaves the program, she is responsible for training her replacement.
Since the dogs live with the inmate trainers in the prison, Sanderson wanted an opportunity to expose the animals to the outside world.
Doggie summer school does the trick, by allowing the young canines to get comfortable within a residential setting that often includes children, a variety of humans they don’t often interact with inside the prison. The program has also proven rewarding for the volunteers who, like the Patels, open their homes and hearts to the puppies.
“It’s a great way for people to get involved without a long-term commitment, and it’s a huge help for the dogs.” Sanderson said. “Volunteering is a wonderful way to change somebody’s life.”
Breeds selected are typically Labradors or Golden Retrievers, although pitbulls and Newfoundlands also perform well. In fact, the group’s office mascot is Whitman, a pitbull who lost one eye to cancer.
“He’s adorable,” Sanderson said of the good-natured pittie who loves greeting everyone at the prison where he reigns as top dog and “oversees” Whitman’s Warrior Project, which raises funds to sponsor rescue dogs to undergo the two-year training program before they are matched with a military veteran in need.
Several locally owned businesses in Central Florida and the Polk County Bully Project have partnered with Patriot Service Dogs to make Whitman’s Warrior Project possible.
The majority of dogs are donated by breeders such as Country Goldens in Tennessee or purchased by Patriot Dogs. Quill, for example, arrived with his brother in a BOGO deal.
All Patriot Service Dogs are trained in more than 80 commands to assist veterans struggling with a range of medical issues conditions like Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, mobility issues, and missing limbs. It takes approximately two years to fully train a service dog. It also takes considerable money, but, fortunately, sponsors come to the rescue.
“Our dogs are all sponsored by organizations such as the American Legion or by individuals and families,” Sanderson said.
Approximately 30 percent of the dogs are released from the vet program because they ultimately do not possess the combination of personality or attitude necessary for the job, or they may develop medical issues. However, being released from the vet program does not mean the dog will not go on to help humans.
Patriot Service Dogs who did not meet the training or health requirements to help vets nevertheless currently serve as sniffing dogs at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport and in search and rescue work in California.
“We work really hard to find a job where they can use their training,” Sanderson said.
In August, the Patel family will return Quill so he can continue his training. The entire family, including nine-year-old Maltipoo Mozzi will miss him.
“Even I have fallen for him, but it’s good to know that he will be helping a vet,” said Daksha Patel.
Patriot Service Dogs welcomes volunteer puppy raisers for doggie summer school.
For more information, or to make a donation, visit Patriotservicedogs.org or call 352-626-2305.