Lynn and Paul Sansale have returned to South St. Paul from a 6,000-mile road trip that took them down a road they never imagined.
But after brief and emotional stops in Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Memphis, Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., Dallas and Albuquerque, N.M., "our focus just changed," Lynn said.
I wrote about the Sansales a year ago, after the couple created their first calendar featuring rescue dogs working as therapy dogs. Lynn, who is retired from hospital administrative work, interviewed the pets' owners about their outreach in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and libraries.
Paul, a Twin Cities art director and illustrator, photographed, then painted, exquisite portraits of the pooches.
They sold nearly all 4,000 "Rescue Dog to Therapy Dog" calendars within weeks and were set to create a similar calendar for 2013. Then Fitz changed everything.
Fitz is an English cocker spaniel and, according to Paul, "probably the prettiest dog I've ever seen." That isn't the reason he's the cover boy for the 2013 edition, "Rescued Heroes."
Fitz earned top billing by proving that a well-trained rescue dog also can work wonders with veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. "That's the ultimate dog story, if you ask me," Lynn said, "because they save lives."
This isn't the story they planned to tell. But while marketing the 2012 calendar, the Sansales were approached by Grace Morris of Brooklyn Center. Morris, owner of a dog-sitting business (www.petbuddyplus.com), bought a case of calendars and mentioned to the Sansales an organization she supports called Paws and Stripes. The Albuquerque-based non-profit (www.pawsandstripes.org) provides trained service dogs at no charge to veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
The organization was founded by Jim Stanek, a veteran of Iraq whose severe PTSD left him home-bound. After receiving his service dog, Sarge, Stanek weaned himself off of 10 drugs and regained his life. He and his wife, Lindsey, were featured in Lisa Ling's documentary, "The Invisible Wounds of War."
Lynn went to the Staneks' website and learned that 18 veterans commit suicide daily. "I just couldn't get that figure out of my mind," Lynn said. She showed the video to Paul, a non-combat veteran of Vietnam, "and from that time on we had a new focus."
In October, they headed out on a 2 1/2-week road trip to meet veterans and their dogs, identified for them by the Staneks and a similar program in Florida called K9s for Warriors (www.k9sforwarriors.org).
They returned home determined to fill their final spot in the 2013 calendar with a Minnesota service dog helping a veteran with PTSD. (Their 2014 calendar, already in the works, will feature only veterans and their service dogs.)
Through the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, Lynn was connected with Lauri Brooke, a county veterans service officer in Becker County. Brooke's daughter had trained Fitz, who was then partnered with a tremendously grateful Tony Tengwall on Valentine's Day.
Tengwall, 32, was deployed to Iraq in 2004. He returned home in 2005 "and became a hermit." When he did drive, he'd get "worked up." He was losing touch with his family and friends.
Now he doesn't have to predict his mood shifts. Fitz does that for him, he said. "He'll come and cuddle up with me." Fitz also is getting Tengwall out of the house for exercise and conversations with neighbors.
"He gets me over the hump of anxiety when talking with people," said Tengwall, who now works to help fellow veterans get education benefits. He always brings Fitz to the office.
"I haven't had an angry vet in my office since February," Tengwall said. "He really calms people down. His attitude, his demeanor, are perfect for me."
The 2013 calendar is available at www.rescue dogart.com, through calendar clubs at local malls, or by calling 651-451-3175.
In addition, the Sansales have donated 1,000 calendars to all 18 Twin Cities' Frattallone ACE Hardware stores, to be sold for $15. Every dollar will go toward the $15,000 needed to buy one trained service dog for a veteran.
Veterans interested in applying for the service dog are asked to go to the K9s For Warriors website.
"Our calendar has a real purpose now," Lynn said. "And it is such a great feeling."