MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University’s Hearts of Gold service dog training program is saving the lives of military veterans, according to a report from WVU Today. And a historic $200,000 donation is helping the program continue to improve.

Jennifer Gieseke is a veteran who still battles the lingering physical and mental effects of her service in the United States Air Force. 

“I wouldn’t leave my house, I wouldn’t go to my appointments by myself, I couldn’t live on my own anymore,” Gieseke said. “Getting a dog — and having a dog by my side to help me if I fell, to wake me from my nightmares, to calm me back down so I could go back to sleep — was completely life-changing. The dog gave me back my independence.”

The supporter’s $200,000 gift, the largest individual contribution in Hearts of Gold’s history, is providing new amenities to boost the program’s efficiency, such as new van equipment and on-site kennels at the Hearts of Gold training facility.

Hearts of Gold is offered through Human-Animal Bond, a nonprofit organization founded more than 15 years ago by Dr. Jean Meade, a Morgantown-area veterinarian. Then an adjunct faculty member at the Davis College, Meade partnered with WVU to provide space for the program and help students in animal science programs gain hands-on experience with small animals. Students assist with the early stages of training each year as part of their coursework, and then professional trainers then take over and work with participating veterans to match them with a dog that meets their needs.

About 20 veterans within 100 miles of WVU’s facility apply annually, and the program aims to place 15 dogs with veterans each year. Participating veterans incur no cost for travel, training, the dog or its care until they complete training and certification with their dog, at which time ownership is transferred to the veteran. 

“To have access to a dog at no cost, that meant my freedom, that meant getting my life back,” Gieseke said. “I’m not quite sure how else to define it. There are so many organizations that put a monetary value on that, and I could never afford that. And I got it. And it means the world to me.”

Gieseke first sought a service dog following a suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization at Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg where another veteran’s service dog provided comfort. A therapist connected her with Hearts of Gold and she received her first service dog, Raleigh, in 2013. She now relies on a successor dog, Lily Rose, to assist with mobility issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Clifton VanGilder said his service dog, Gunny, helps him deal with back and knee issues stemming from over six years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as anxiety due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Gunny has helped me a lot when it comes to mobility,” VanGilder said. “I can barely bend over some days. He helps pick up my keys and stuff that I drop. He can pick up anything – pill bottles, cell phone. But he also helps when you’re having a bad day. I recently had a bad day, and he came up and put his paws on my lap, and he got in my face and he wouldn’t look away until I told him it was OK.”

Gunny even accompanies VanGilder to work, where he does maintenance for the federal government. Although his supervisors and colleagues were skeptical at first, VanGilder said they have since noted that his attitude and performance improved after he partnered with Gunny.

Clifton VanGilder and Gunny, a veteran and service dog team connected via Hearts of Gold, based at WVU’s Davis College (WVU Photo)

“We’re stopping veteran suicide,” said Hearts of Gold Program Director Rob Harford. “We are making an impact in veterans’ lives every day. When we get them in here, we initially might see that anxiety, that stress, and we watch it fade as they train through the program. We are making such an impact here that it can’t be understated.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the Jennifer Mason Hearts of Gold Support Fund (2W1647) can make a gift online or contact Director of Development Andrew Barnes at 304-293-6962 or Andrew.Barnes@mail.wvu.edu for more information.

Veterans interested in a service dog through Hearts of Gold can visit humanimalbond.org/heartsofgold to complete an eligibility survey and learn more.