Wisconsin nonprofit trains dogs as life buddies for veterans

Marine veteran John Matter with his dog, Zuul, a German Shepherd trained and given to him through Sierra Delta, at Hart Park in Wauwatosa. Sierra Delta, a Wisconsin nonprofit, provides training for dogs for any veteran who wants one.

When a veteran is depressed or having a panic attack or nightmare or suffering from PTSD, sometimes the antidote can be as simple as a dog’s paw on their hand or a lick to their face.

Any dog owner knows what a calming influence their pup can be and a nonprofit started by a Wisconsin Marine aims to get a trained dog to any veteran who wants and needs one.

B.J. Ganem knows the power of pooches and founded Sierra Delta a few years ago to provide training for dogs who are life buddies. Though there are several well-established nonprofits that raise money to train guide dogs and service dogs for veterans, Sierra Delta is a different kind of program.

“We’re trying to get rid of the myth of presenting a veteran with a dog. Instead, a veteran picks a dog and we train them with a focus on rescue dogs because so many are killed every year,” said Ganem.

Ganem noted that roughly 1,000 highly trained service dogs are given to post-9/11 veterans each year through charities, with the dogs costing as much as $65,000. 

“Most veterans just need a pet,” said Ganem, 43, who lives in Reedsburg.

So far, 347 veterans have gotten trained dogs through Sierra Delta, the military phonetic spelling of the first initials for service dog.

The nonprofit started in 2017 when Ganem began studying how the service dog industry for veterans worked. He realized that veterans could benefit from a variety of dogs, those trained to help a veteran with life chores down to animals who are simply well-trained pets.

He was encouraged by the founder of Blue Buffalo pet food, the founder of Nantucket Holiday for Heroes who owns a pet food company, and President George W. Bush. Bush visited Ganem when he was at Walter Reed recovering from the amputation of one leg below the knee and they have stayed in touch.

On Thanksgiving night 2004, Ganem, who was serving in Madison-based Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Reserves, was driving a Humvee that struck an IED in Iraq. His fellow Marine, Ryan Cantafio of Beaver Dam, was killed and Ganem suffered a mild brain injury, shrapnel wounds and a severe leg injury. Three other Marines were injured but returned to duty.

B.J. Ganem celebrates his dog Loki's first birthday. Ganem started Sierra Delta, a nonprofit that pairs veterans and their dogs with trainers in their communities, in 2017.

Sierra Delta pairs veterans and their dogs with trainers in their communities. The program helps vets learn to communicate with their dogs and set routines for them and their pets. There’s also an app with games and challenges for veterans to earn points through a number of ways like volunteering at homeless shelters or giving talks about their experience to groups. The points can be used for free gear.

“The majority of vets who go through the program say ‘we knew you would train our dogs, we didn’t know you would train us,'” said Ganem.

John Matter, 40, was given a highly-trained service dog through another nonprofit for his PTSD, a black Lab named Winston. But Matter realized that Winston was not a family pet and after 1½, years his PTSD symptoms subsided and he no longer needed him.

“I simply didn’t need a $65,000 service dog. They only give away 1,000 dogs a year and if I got one, then it meant somebody else didn’t get one,” said Matter, who lives in Hartland.

The 1998 West Allis Central grad joined the Marines right out of high school and served until 2013. His unit was stationed in Bahrain when the USS Cole was attacked by al-Qaida in 2000 while refueling in Yemen and he was sent to secure the ship. He served multiple deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen and earned three Purple Hearts.

Matter noticed that after his PTSD symptoms were in control, he still needed a dog in the house to sleep soundly at night.

He got in touch with Ganem.

“I was telling him that the service dog industry, they tell you what you need, they train these wonderful dogs and you have very little input into what you get and why you get it,” said Matter.

Now Matter has a 16-month-old German shepherd named Zuul trained through Sierra Delta. Zuul is with him at home and at work.

“He helps me sleep. If someone comes to my window at night he’s the first to fight. Sometimes when I get panicky, he realizes it and when he sees me having nightmares, he wakes me up,” Matter said.

Each veteran who applies is assigned a counselor who goes through their needs and medical records. Sierra Delta does not require a letter from a doctor or any disability paperwork, unlike other service dog nonprofits, only proof that the veteran served in the military.

And it’s open to any veteran no matter when they were in uniform. 

“We’re helping veterans and dogs come home together,” said Ganem.

For more information: sierradelta.com