• BEN KATZ/ bkatz@ cherokeescout.com  Bill Buck and 2-year-old  German shepherd Sierra share a moment in downtown Andrews.
    BEN KATZ/ bkatz@ cherokeescout.com Bill Buck and 2-year-old German shepherd Sierra share a moment in downtown Andrews.

Helping veterans one paw at a time

    Paws 4a Warrior has teamed up with Valley River Humane Society to enhance the lives of both shelter dogs and local veterans.
    Bill Buck, owner of the nonprofit Paws 4a Warrior, has worked since 2012 to provide service and companion support dogs to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or other brain injuries. After helping shelter board member Joe Winchell train some of the humane society’s dogs to be more adoptable, the two came up with the idea to start the veteran partnership.
    “It’s a good marriage between the two organizations,” Winchell said. “I’ve met people that have told me because of the animal they have, they feel calm and better. They take their anxiety level down.”
    Winchell said if a veteran comes forward with a legitimate need for a companion or therapy dog, the animal shelter will waive their adoption fees.

Finding the right fit
    When pairing the dog with a veteran, multiple variables will be taken into consideration, including the handler’s needs. Buck said people need to examine their lifestyle and find a dog that fits into it. For example, if they have a limited amount of space in their home or frequently travel, they might not want a large dog.

    Since starting his nonprofit, Buck has helped around 20 different veterans ages 25-75. He also offers the service to first responders. Some of the handlers bring their own dogs before undergoing training, instead of becoming paired with a shelter dog.Once a week and free of charge, Buck said he works in a private setting with the handlers and dogs until they feel satisfied that the training is complete.
    In some cases, he said the dogs are unable to acquire the skill-sets needed to become a companion. The handlers will still keep these dogs, but they will remain a normal pet. Buck finds calm dogs that are attentive to their handlers make quality companions.
    When working with the dogs, he caters the training to the person’s individual needs. To cover the cost of providing a free service to veterans and first responders, Buck runs basic obedience training classes for the public.

Beginnings of the nonprofit
    Before launching Paws 4a Warrior, Buck searched for a meaningful way to spend his retirement. Having served three years with the U.S. Marines and another year with Army National Guard during the 1970s, he wanted to find a means of helping veterans.
    He decided on training a dog to visit veteran hospitals, but the plan fell through.
    “I never got to the first hospital because there was too much red tape,” he said. “That was OK, because in the process I found out so much more about therapy and service dogs.”
    During his retirement, Buck received a plethora of experience from working with former police and military canine trainers. He also took lessons from agility and basic dog obedience teachers.
    After falling in love with a property in Hayesville, Buck moved from Cumming, Ga., and opened Paws 4a Warrior.
    “I did not want to see today’s veterans go through some of the stuff that we went through when we returned from Vietnam,” Buck said. “It (Paws 4a Warrior) helps to get the veteran’s mind off their issues. By focusing on the dog, they’re no longer thinking about some of the negative issues they’ve gone through in their life.”

Creating happy endings
    With all of the veterans Buck has worked with, he noticed they have gained a new zest for life. He said it makes them get up and become active, while many without a companion dog would have stayed inside.
    Buck said one of his fondest success stories involved a Marine gunnery sergeant who owned a Dutch shepherd. The handler decided to work intensively with the dog, often training every day. By the end of the program, the dog would walk and stop in sync with the man as if he was his shadow.
    One of his favorite aspects of working with veterans and first responders is the outcome.
    “It’s always the ending,” Buck said. “I love seeing what has been accomplished by both the dog and the handler.”
    As for the future of Paws 4a Warrior, Buck plans to open a therapeutic, fenced-in area where veterans can relax and spend time with their dogs. Aimed to open this fall, the setting will offer an agility course that will keep the dogs active and stimulated by new surroundings.
    For any questions about the nonprofit or companion dog requests, call Buck at 678-910-5036. Donations can be made online at paws4awarrior.com.