NEWBURYPORT — Connie Hellwig’s life has always been guided by her passion for animals.
She’s a professional dog walker and pet sitter, lifelong advocate for animals and the proud owner of four cats, two horses and an Alaskan Klee Kai. In fact, wherever she goes, you can expect to see a four-legged someone right by her side. But it wasn’t until recently that Hellwig’s been able to combine her love for animals with her compassion for people in need.
In May, Hellwig founded Feed the Dog Inc., a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing full care for service dogs that have been placed with U.S. disabled veterans. The idea stemmed from an encounter she had with a veteran and his service dog. She noticed the dog was thin and grungy, and she came to find out the veteran was having enough trouble feeding himself, let alone his service dog. She began delivering premium food for the dog and wishing she could do more.
Service dogs are on the job 24 hours a day providing important care and companionship to soldiers recovering from traumatic brain injury, paralysis and other serious injuries — but there is a high price tag associated with caring for the dog, Hellwig said. “If we can give the dog the best care possible at no cost to the veteran, we can extend the service relationship by two years, or more.”
Qualifying wounded combat veterans receive assistance dogs at no cost from organizations like NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dogs Services) based in Princeton, which has placed more than 65 dogs through their Canines for Combat Veterans program.
These highly trained dogs are, according to NEADS, able to assist with balance, control lights, push buttons, assist wheelchair-bound veterans, provide social interaction, open doors, respond to sound for deaf veterans and more. After training and placement, however, the dogs become the financial responsibility of the veteran.
“Any pet owner knows it’s expensive to give a pet the right care,” Hellwig said. “My mission is to provide complete care for my sponsored dogs and eliminate the financial burden for the veteran. These are people who have done their service, and they shouldn’t have to pay a dime.”
Complete care includes pet insurance to cover all veterinary services, premium dog food, grooming, supplies, walking services, clean-up services, microchip implants and supplemental training. In other words, everything, which sounds daunting. But Hellwig calculates the full cost of a service dog over its lifetime, including unexpected costs, and when available funds match the requirement, she is then able to sponsor a dog on her waiting list.
Hellwig raises funds through private donation, shop-for-goods services like iGive.com and grants. Her many years in the pet care industry combined with her lead involvement in nonprofits like the Newburyport Maritime Society and the Essex County Greenbelt have helped her build a strong foundation of support for Feed the Dog, Inc.
Dr. Lee Garrod is the proprietor of six veterinary hospitals in the region and an advocate for Feed the Dog, Inc.
“We take for granted that people with service dogs can give them the care they need,” Garrod said. “But the wellness visits essential for early detection, for example, can cost anywhere between $350 and $450.”
Disease prevention can be as simple as annual wellness exams and quality nutrition, when available, she said. “The goal is to keep the service dog healthy and active for as long as possible so he can reach his potential.”
Hellwig described that potential as both practical and personal. “These dogs become dedicated soul mates,” she said.
It’s a deep connection she knows well. When Hellwig was just 8, her mother cared for a stray feral cat they named “Mamma-Kitty” because she had recently given birth. Together they provided care to keep the cat healthy enough to nurse her litter.
“The first time I held that cat in my lap, it was a transformative experience,” she said. “Animals just have that effect on people.”
Contributions to Feed the Dog, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, can be made through the organization’s website at www.feedthedog.org.