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From Strays To Service: How Phoenix Farms Transforms First Responders’ Lives Through Dogs

Written by: Kelli Brinegar
For more than five years, Kelli Brinegar has been using her ability to write and her passion for research to tell the tale of what cats are thinking and why. She has provided care to more than 30 cats in her lifetime.Read more
| Published on October 12, 2023

In the heart of Arkansas, Phoenix Farms Animal Sanctuary has embarked on a unique and transformative mission. Founded by Lorie Atwater, the non-profit organization is dedicated to training strays to become PTSD service dogs for first responders. Lorie’s experience in law enforcement, combined with her personal battle with PTSD, has made her the heart and soul of this sanctuary, where dogs offer more than just companionship—they offer healing and hope.

With facilities in Arkansas and connections to first responders on the West Coast, Phoenix Farms is forging a pathway for unwanted dogs to find purpose and love with those who need them most.

Serving Those Who Serve Us

Lorie’s history provides a deep insight into the birth of Phoenix Farms Animal Sanctuary. For almost a decade, Lorie worked as sworn law enforcement, and those years, coupled with personal tragedies that left her divorced and raising kids on her own, left her to battle PTSD.

“It’s hard to explain how much horrible stuff you witness ‘on the job,’” Lorie shared. “It takes a toll. The PTSD is real for many.”

Because she understands what life means for first responders, both in the emotional and practical aspects, Lorie works to serve them through her California-based tax practice and her love of dogs.

“I have probably adopted 100 dogs into my clients’ homes over the past 20 years. I seem to end up rescuing dogs wherever I go. This venture was a natural evolution.”

The unwavering bond between dogs and first responders is not a new phenomenon, Lorie admits, but the understanding of the benefits dogs can provide for PTSD is growing, with specially-trained PTSD dogs able to offer “a layer of security for someone suffering.” In this way, people can move forward and continue living.

“We are looking to cope, not looking for a crutch,” she emphasized.

One special corgi named Beavis opened Lorie’s eyes to the power of service dogs.

“Beavis was my personal PTSD dog for about 10 of his 14 years. He knew how to redirect me when I became anxious, and I was able to go on many adventures with him that I otherwise would not have been able to do,” Lorie reminisced.

Lorie wanted other first responders coping with PTSD to feel such a connection, and now, she’s saving stray dogs while bettering the lives of others through Phoenix Farms.

Saving Strays Through the Bonds of Service

The road to becoming a PTSD service dog is not easy, though. It requires a keen selection process. But Lorie, with her twenty years of experience training dogs, and the professional canine officers who work with Phoenix Farms know just what qualities make for an exemplary service dog.

“We look for a dog with a mellow disposition and who is intelligent. An anxious dog can’t do this work,” Lorie explained.

The foundation of their training revolves around positive reinforcement, trust-building, and understanding human energy.

“Energy travels between you and your dog, and the dog needs to be able to redirect a human when they become anxious. I teach them how to do that.”

Success stories are already emerging from Phoenix Farms. One of their dogs, German Shepherd Xara, has been adopted by a retired LAPD sergeant and shows tremendous promise in her training. Another, Leia, a 3-year-old Golden Retriever, is becoming an exemplary PTSD service dog, with her handler, a retired LAPD sergeant and former Marine, joining the team to share his experience and expertise. And soon, Gemma, a black GSD, will head to her new home with an LAPD officer and Air Force Veteran.

Despite the sanctuary’s success, challenges abound. Strays come with unknown histories, which can pose significant challenges in training. Plus, it can take a long while before the talent for PTSD work is certain in a rescue dog.

“Not knowing what the dog has been through is always challenging,” Lorie noted.

Not all dogs are cut out to serve, but no matter what, they are meant for love, and every single pup finds that with Phoenix Farms.

Costs Are Always High, But So Is Hope

Phoenix Farms operates through word of mouth, carefully matching dogs with first responders based on need and compatibility. The matching process is meticulous, ensuring a deep bond between the service dog and their handler. However, like many non-profit animal groups, Phoenix Farms faces financial challenges.

Currently unfunded, the sanctuary is in desperate need of startup capital.

“Veterinary expenses are high here, as dogs have to be on heartworm and flea and tick prevention,” Lorie shared.

Every penny matters, and you can help more dogs find first responders in need by donating to Phoenix Farms Animal Sanctuary.

In addition to financial contributions, Phoenix Farms is seeking volunteers for tasks ranging from dog walking to general maintenance.

While still in its nascent stages, Phoenix Farms strives to change lives, one dog at a time. Lorie reflects on the significance of their work, stating, “The dogs recognize when you have dark thoughts and intervene. There is no greater joy for me than matching someone with a dog that will help them in such a personal way.”

In a world where the weight of PTSD can be overwhelming, Phoenix Farms Animal Sanctuary offers a glimmer of hope, a beacon of healing, and a testament to the profound bond between humans and their four-legged companions. As Lorie succinctly puts it, “When you have a dog that is your friend and companion, you can still connect and decompress when you are in that place.”

Donate to Phoenix Farms today and help stray dogs become the heroes first responders need! 

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