Saint Leo MSW Alumna Changing Lives of Vets, Inmates with Service Dogs

Meet Julie Sanderson, a Saint Leo MSW alumna who is transforming the lives of military veterans and inmates through Patriot Service Dogs.

Tags: Alumni Benefits of Online Classes College of Education and Social Services Master of Social Work Master's Degree Nonprofit Organizations Online Learning Online MSW Saint Leo Alumni Saint Leo Faculty Small Business Social Work Social Work Careers Social Work Degree Therapy Dogs
25 January 2023 - By Greg Lindberg
A photo of Julie Sanderson (left), a Saint Leo MSW alumna, with Patriot Service Dogs graduate, Tank (a Bernese Mountain Dog), and Capt. Renee Graham of the Nassau County, FL Sheriff's Office

Military veterans and prison inmates are two unique populations. It might not seem obvious how the two are connected, but Saint Leo University MSW alumna Julie Sanderson is bringing both communities together in an innovative way through the noble work she does with Patriot Service Dogs.

The 56-year-old originally hails from upstate New York but moved to Florida at age four. She now resides in Ocala, FL. She has two grown children, Casey and Victoria, and a “granddog,” Spree, named after the candy.

Her Educational Endeavors

Sanderson is a double alumna of the College of Central Florida. She first attained a bachelor’s degree in education and also completed a bachelor’s in business administration from the college.

She later decided to research graduate degree programs in social work. Her goal was to use what she would learn to maximize her community outreach efforts. This search led her to the Saint Leo University MSW (Master of Social Work) program.

“I actually placed a service dog with a community member who knew of Saint Leo University,” Sanderson recalls. “I did some research and liked the idea of it being an online program. When I spoke to my enrollment counselor, it felt like it would be a quality program with a personal touch.”

Notable Faculty in the Saint Leo MSW Program

Several professors in the Saint Leo MSW program made a positive impact on Sanderson when she was enrolled in the graduate social work program. She fondly recalls Dr. Robert Lucio, an associate professor of social work with whom she participated in a Legislative Education and Advocacy Day conference in Atlanta.

“I remember him teaching us about statistics,” she says. “I am definitely not a math person, but he truly made it a fun and engaging class.”

Prof. Khalilah Louis Caines, an instructor of social work, was also influential in Sanderson’s academic career.

“She was a fantastic instructor,” Sanderson says. “All of the professors in the program were very supportive of our success.”

She adds that while in the program, she transitioned from a two-year program to a three-year track. She is grateful for having had this option to better fit her needs.

“It’s a fantastic program,” she says. “It fits into many individuals’ lives regardless of their schedule. They will be flexible with you to ensure you can complete the program.”

Meaningful Connections with Fellow Students

While the students in this online MSW program were spread out around the country, the virtual format still allowed her to get to know many of them.

“It was a fun environment because of the small classes,” she says. “Even though it was online, you get to know everyone in your classes.”

She says that she and a group of fellow students in the program got to meet at University Campus over a weekend.

“We realized we had developed some close friendships among each other. We did some presentations on campus but also got to go out to dinner and had a lot of laughs together.”

Sanderson completed the Saint Leo MSW program in 2019.

Launching Patriot Service Dogs

After raising her two children and briefly working as a teacher, she decided to pursue a passion of hers by starting a nonprofit with a strong connection to the social work field. This is how Patriot Service Dogs was born. She co-founded the nonprofit with Susan Bolton and the help of several dedicated volunteers.

Sanderson explains how she discovered a niche market she could serve through this organization.

“At the time, I discovered through a neighbor who had suffered a stroke that service dogs were expensive and difficult to get,” she says. “Many veterans have a need for them, but many can’t afford them. I started this organization to help meet this need so that vets would not have to worry about the finances of getting one of these animals. Plus, it was time for us to give back to them because they had given themselves to us by serving our country.”

Patriot Service Dogs serves the veteran community around central Florida.

“We accept applications from any honorably discharged vets who are able-bodied and think they would be able to handle a dog for the next 10 years.”

According to Sanderson, the matching process for clients and dogs is quite extensive to ensure the best possible match is achieved.

“We interview the vet, look at the dogs we have available, look at what the client needs and what dogs can do for them specifically, and then place the dogs accordingly.”

An eight-week-old Labrador Retriever puppy, Shannon, in training with Patriot Service Dogs; Julie Sanderson, a Saint Leo MSW alumna, operates Patriot Service Dogs

Dogs are typically placed with the client in less than a year, and the training of the client usually takes one week. There is no charge to the client when receiving a service dog. Each dog learns around 80 commands. Among their many abilities, the dogs can retrieve items, turn light switches on and off, and push buttons to open doors. There are also several commands related to PTSD and anxiety to help comfort the handler when under stress.

To indicate their roles as service animals, the canines wear a red vest featuring the Patriot Service Dogs logo and text that reads “Service Dog - please don’t touch.” The organization primarily trains Golden and Labrador Retrievers. However, Sanderson and her team have recently been exploring other breeds like the Rottweiler, Newfoundland, and Bernese Mountain Dog. Incorporating rescue dogs into its program is a new goal of the organization as well.

When asked about success stories among the vets she serves, several stand out. However, one particular gentleman comes to mind.

“He would go everywhere armed and ready for combat as if he were still on the battlefield,” she recalls. “During training, we talked about how a dog could help him feel safe in his skin. With his dog, he has become so much more active as a father and boyfriend. He even went to Disney World recently.”

A photo of military veterans training with inmate-trainers in the WOOF Prison Program through Patriot Service Dogs at the Lowell Correctional Institution in the Ocala area of Marion County, FL; Julie Sanderson, a Saint Leo MSW alumna, operates Patriot Service Dogs

Partnering with a Local Prison for Puppy Raisers

In addition to serving military veterans, Sanderson also engages with prison inmates. She has been working with the Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison located in Ocala, for over 12 years as part of the Women Offering Obedience and Friendship (WOOF) program she helped establish with the Florida Department of Corrections. Based on strict qualifications, certain inmates become puppy raisers of the dogs that will later be placed with clients.

“The inmates help train the puppies to follow commands and perform specific tasks,” she says. “Then we take the puppies out into the community to socialize them.”

She has observed significant positive changes in many of the female inmates involved in this partnership.

“This program gives them a purpose and helps them understand someone else’s needs,” she explains. “These inmates have a lot of time and talent to give. They aren’t looking at their smartphones all day and don’t have to cook dinner, so they have all day to work on this.”

A Rewarding Community Venture

Sanderson feels honored to be in her position at the helm of such an impactful organization.

“It's very rewarding to see the impact our dogs have on the lives of veterans and their families,” she says. “But it's equally rewarding to see the community that forms around the dogs. It truly takes a village to train, fund, care for, and love a dog from puppyhood to the time they are matched with a veteran. I'm always inspired by the people who decide to jump in an help.”

READ MORE: Check out this story on Sanderson and Patriot Service Dogs from the Spring 2017 issue of Spirit Magazine.

Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Julie Sanderson of Patriot Service Dogs and are used with permission.