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Belle of the ball

Former Navy nurse Lee Michaelsen at her Wadena home with Belle, her assistance dog. Michaelsen said Belle has been a big help in fighting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Help for Lee Michaelson’s post-traumatic stress disorder came underneath a pair of floppy ears.

Michaelson is a Wadena resident and former Navy corpsman who served as nurse during Vietnam. She first entered upon the notion of applying for a service dog while talking with her Veteran’s Adminsitration doctor, who then posed the idea to Michaelson’s mental health physician. After both agreed it would help her, they put her in contact with Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD) in Detroit Lakes, a training center for mental health therapy dogs. Following about a year of waiting, she met a lab/pit bull mix named Belle. In just the two months since she’s had Belle, Michaelson’s condition has already seen improvement.

“I’m not as anxious,” Michaelson said. “I’m much more comfortable, I’m much more relaxed when I go places because she takes care of that for me.”

Belle is thought to be around 3-5 years old, although her exact age is unknown. Like many PAD dogs, she is a rescue, and Michaelson said Belle’s own traumatic past comes back sometimes too. She tenses up sometimes around men in baseball caps, or around long, broom-like objects, so Michaelson suspects Belle’s previous owner before she was rescued may have been abusive.

“I’m thinking that whoever had her originally must have not been real cool,” she said.

Michaelson said although Belle has sometimes misbehaved to rambunctiously chase after the occasional squirrel or “expand” a gopher hole, the pup’s overall demeanor is completely affectionate.

“She is really a sweetheart,” Michaelson said.

Linda Wiedewitsch, the trainer at PAD, described the rigorous education dogs undergo once they become part of the program. After thorough health and temperament screenings, the dogs get 8-10 months’ worth of obedience training. PAD wants the dogs to be accustomed to as many adverse situations as possible in case the dog/veteran pair finds themselves in a tight spot. To make them as ready as they can be, Wiedewitsch exposes the dogs to everything from the distractingly interesting smells at a supermarket to the sound of nearby gunfire. The average cost for Wiedewitsch and the all-volunteer staff at PAD to train a service dog runs about $8,000, she said. In Belle’s case, that figure was around $10,000, Michaelson said. However, private donations and public grants make it so the veterans themselves bear none of the cost.