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AAHA’s president-elect thanks a veteran for his service—with a service dog

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Zelda in training. Photo courtesy of Pam Nichols

Plenty of veterinarians play matchmaker by putting dogs together with good people, even if it’s only via bulletin-board postings in the hospital waiting room. But for Pam Nichols, DVM, owner of Animal Care Daybreak in South Jordan, Utah, and AAHA’s president-elect, making the perfect match came about in an unexpected way: through her team’s nonprofit work for military veterans.

Every year, Nichols’ 502(c)(3) nonprofit, the We Care Fund, hosts an open house where the South Jordan community donates tires, oil changes, RV rentals, and more to military veterans and, occasionally, civilians who’ve fallen on hard times. Nichols donates her veterinary services at cost with the notice: “Any veteran in need, bring your pet in and we’ll take care of them, no charge.”

Last year, that meant providing $20,000 worth of veterinary care, a generous act that caught the attention of one of Animal Care Daybreak’s clients. “[She] said, ‘I know a marine who has PTSD. He came home from Fallujah really screwed up,’” Nichols said. The veteran’s therapist had suggested he get an emotional-support service dog, and Nichols’ client asked her to keep her eyes open for a likely prospect she could sponsor through Nichols’ We Care Fund.

“You take care of the vet care,” she told Nichols, “and we’ll get the dog sent to his new marine.”

In a coincidence right out of a feel-good movie, another client brought in a six-month-old Lab mix named Zelda for vaccinations later that same day. Zelda had been adopted by new owners, but the puppy, while sweet, had turned out to be quite a handful.

Clearly, Zelda was a handful only a marine could handle.

Nichols called a trainer she knew, who agreed to donate a month of training, as well as one-on-one training with the marine after that. So Nichols took Zelda home for the first week for basic obedience, crate, and boundary training. In a couple of months, Zelda should be ready for her new owner. “And he’ll have a service dog for life,” Nichols enthuses. “It’s so cool—she’s my first service dog.”

Thanks to Zelda’s sponsor, it won’t be her last. She’s agreed to sponsor four dogs per year. When the trainer heard that, she agreed to sponsor training for four dogs per year. “Being the vet, I said, ‘Well, I’ll provide care for four dogs per year,’” Nichols said. “I’m over-the-moon excited!”

The daughter of an Air Force veteran, Nichols says military service is close to her heart. Her family, she notes, is of all political persuasions, but making sure military veterans are taken care of is “the one thing that brings everyone together.” 

When it comes to taking care of veterans by helping take care of their pets, Nichols dreams big.

“I can donate care for one full day, [but] I’m just one person,” she says. “What if I could get 10 hospitals in Salt Lake City to do it? What if, on Veteran’s Day, we could get every hospital in the country to do it? And what if my little We Care Fund could reimburse them all for the cost of that care? How freakin’ cool would that be?”

Zelda and her marine would find it very cool indeed.