Dec. 11, 2019

Matt Burgess - Freedom Fidos

Matt Burgess - Freedom Fidos

Welcome to this episode of The Ankylosing Spondylitis Podcast. I'm very honored today to have Matt Burgess on. Matt is the founder and president of Freedom Fidos, which is a service dog training organization out of Columbus, Georgia. Matt's focus with these dogs is to provide them to disabled military and first responders a thing that's near and dear to his heart. Matt's not only served in the military, being in the Georgia National Guard, and serving overseas in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, as well as being wounded serving overseas. So with that, Matt, how are you doing?

Matt Burgess:

I'm great today. Thanks so much for having me.

Jayson:

Oh, it's my pleasure. First and foremost, thank you for your service from those of us that like myself, I grew up all I want to do is join the military with the Ankylosing Spondylitis that was not to be in my cards. So I ended up having to go a different route. So for me anytime I can get the message out to help anybody, whether you're disabled service members, or in this case, a combination of the two. I love to do it and freedom fighters and such an amazing story. I'd really like if you could tell the listeners a little bit about your military background and what brought you into thinking about service dogs.

Matt Burgess:

Yes, sir. Well, first of all Jayson, thanks even though you didn't military thank you for your service now and what you're doing for humanity, which is really means a great deal to me and I'm honored. The first time in the military, I was in the infantry from 1993 to 97 and deployed to Bosnia and Macedonia and went through three blast explosions, which created traumatic, brain injury but they didn't really have that term at the time or really, no, was and I knew I was different, but I wanted to stay in the military. I got the military with honorable discharge in 1997. did a couple different jobs. Brandon the Tree Service Then after 911, I wanted to go back in, can you serve again and also I hope to get into federal law enforcement. So I felt like military police would help my resume. So I joined the National Guard for what they call a try one, which was to be what year graduated in the top 10% of my military police school and was doing pretty well kind of tracking with the military. I deployed to Iraq in 2003, with the Georgia National Guard, and a month later, I was having sharp pains and falling down in extreme cases of vomiting and despite my protagonist, I was headed back to the United States. And I went through two years of medical treatment and trying to determine what the case was and was sent the Walter Reed anthrax vaccination center where they determined When I was the most classic case of symptoms as a result of the anthrax, and so in 2006 I was temporarily retired for the military in 2007, permanently retired. 


Jayson:

They even thought you had Ankylosing Spondylitis what like what I have because they just couldn't put together what was going on with you. 


Matt Burgess:

Yes, sir. Amongst several past that was one of the primary considerations that a wonderful doctor he really went above and beyond and he really considered that that might be the diagnosis.


Jayson:

Interesting and then it turns out to be this shot you got an essence it was you know, a vaccination to try and keep you safe turns out to be what caused you all your problems?


Matt Burgess:

Yes, sir. The reaction to it ended up creating 18 previously non-existent medical conditions, five of which, you know, the doctors label the top five killers. 


Jayson:

So, wow. So you come back. You've been given all this News. What led you to say I want to start an organization to train service dogs? 


Matt Burgess:

I was medically retired; I went to a couple of technical schools and then I went to, in Gainesville, Georgia, enrolled in a associate's degree at Gainesville State and got my associates degree and my grades were good enough that I was able to transfer to University of Georgia and then in my final year at the University of Georgia, my pet of 15 years, a dog had passed away. I went to Athens, Georgia animal shelter and the first kennel I walked into there was this little brown and black bundle of fur and it started, he walked up and started to chew on my shoes, just looking at me like ‘Please take me, Please take me.’ So I put in the application and the amazing thing, now I know why, was six people ahead of me didn't take that dog and I got him. 


So a year later, I was working on building a privacy fence and I named the dog. I thought he was going to be security dog because he was a Rottweiler Shepherd mix, I named him Brinks. A year later, I working on a privacy fence and the wind blew and hit me. Because I was already susceptible to head injury, it knocked me unconscious, and Brinks jumped an existing five foot fence and went and scratched on the neighbor's door, going back over the fence. I woke up to Brinks dropping my cell phone on my chest and licking my face in that very transformative pivotal moment, I knew my life's purpose, and I knew that we would start a nonprofit, rescue dogs from shelters, train them to be service dogs and provide them at no cost to disabled veterans in order to give the same quality of life back to the veterans that Brinks was giving me. 


Jayson:

Had Brinks been trained to do any of that?


Matt Burgess:

No, he hadn't and when he did, it was just instinct. He's mostly untrained, so I started working with him.  He was of course very puppy and he would run through my house with chewed up shoes and when I told my professor that Brink’s ate my paper, my term paper, it really wasn't a lie. It was the truth, understandable, but still a little stressful. 


So I invested in a lot of dog training videos and it really started learning how to train dogs. But what Brinks did when he saved my life for the first time amazing to me, powerful, often intangible thing about the canine were they know so much and they know us often better than ourselves, and just because it can become a powerful collaboration.



Jayson:

You have this episode happen, you've got Brinks with no idea that he will do this. Brinks is not thought of as a service dog he’s really just to be a pet, you know, a ball of fur around your house. Tell me about the first dog that you ever went and rescued to train. How did that come about? 


Matt Burgess:

Shortly after that I went to the Shepherd Care Center where they have a six-month program where they work with veterans with traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While I was there, a veteran told me about who had a service dog told me about an organization in South Carolina who would train existing pets to be service dog. So I searched down the organization, went to the organization and invested myself, became a lead trainer, and I trained to be a service dog and then in 2014, started on my own and the incredible powerful story of the first dog we rescued named Bronson. He was in White County, Georgia; he'd been severely abused and pretty horrifying situation. We placed him with a child with special needs at the time and it's been an incredible journey that it's pretty hard not to get emotional about it. 


Jayson:

To date how many dogs has Freedom Fido’s rescued and put to work? 


Matt Burgess:

We have created 43 service dog teams and will be placing eight more by the end of this year, by the end of December. We have a waiting list of 200 plus so it's a pretty big need.


Jayson:

Yes and now with that said, You've got some relationships with the various kennels around, the pounds, all the places that hold basically unwanted dogs. You must have a lot of time and effort just in vetting dogs?


Matt Burgess:

Yes sir. So when we go to the kennels, we of course wish we could take them all and I think half or a good part of the reason why I started Freedom Fido’s is to walk into the shelters and be able to say yes and it's a very emotional experience and when we go to the kennels, tennis ball training is one of my favorite ways to train the service dog. So I walk in with a tennis ball, bouncing the tennis ball and at first all the dogs pay attention, but the dog that is still paying attention to the tennis ball 20 to 30 minutes later is usually your very driven, task oriented dog. That dog is probably the one dog we can afford to do a personality test and we also take Brinks with us because as much as my partner and I try to speak dog, we can't. So Brinks can tell us if there's anything with a dog that we might not see and it is very emotional draining three to four hour experience. Again, we wish we could take them all but then at the end it's just really amazing. When you walk out with this don't look at maybe the eyes, they're given up for any reason and they don't. I understand that and it's almost like they know that you saved their life. And then it just begins that powerful journey with the culmination or their place with a veteran in the collaboration and the symbiotic relationship and the healing is just beyond words.


Jayson:

Now these dogs, when you pick them, obviously each person that's going to receive a dog is going to have different needs. But that doesn't mean that all the dogs have to be large breeds for a mobility type service. They could be small breeds for emotional issues, anything of that nature, could they not?


Matt Burgess:

Absolutely! It's really amazing when you get these dogs from the shelters and give them a chance. We actually have two small Yorkies that retrieve items off the ground and the cool thing with them is they're able to jump up in a wheelchair for those two veterans. So yes, absolutely. There's pretty much, there's really no dog that is excluded and we work with every disability except for the seeing eye dog.


Jayson:

That being said, do you train the dogs to the ADA standards? So the dogs are a service dog and not just an emotional support dog?


Matt Burgess:

Yes, sir, we do. We're really directing and really pay attention to the ADA which paraphrase says there's a dog that can be passed trying to alleviate a disability then the dog has the right to be in public. So our dogs are tasked trained to alleviate a physical disability for the individual. 


Jayson:

Oh fantastic. So that way the dogs can't be discriminated against and forced to be left out if that person needs the assistance.


Matt Burgess:

Absolutely it is. For example, when I walk into a restaurant, Brinks carries my wallet or carries my keys. He brings the wallet up on the table, he pays at grocery stores, he helps me do my laundry, he retrieves, he can take items at a grocery store off the shelf and paws up and put them in the grocery cart, also wakes me up when I stop breathing by licking my face. He’s saved my life numerous times. So he's my hero and so we like to we sort of use him as the gold standard that we want to replicate or duplicate what he gives to me and give that to other people.


Jayson:

One of the things that's really neat about Freedom Fidos is you've caught the attention of a lot of people, including an author named Ramona Rice and she wrote a book that includes you guys called Walk In My Paws An Anthology: Working Service Dogs. It was just published about two months ago and if I understand right from reading the information on it, it talks about Oh, roughly three dozen dog service dogs and how they help the people that have them.


Matt Burgess:

Yeah. So that's really been a wonderful highlight of 2019. We are very grateful that Erik Weihenmayer, one of my good friends I met on a mountain climbing expedition that had a piece that aired on NBC. Ramona saw that and reached out to us and being the incredible, in my mind, modern day Mother Teresa that she is, she had written first one book and donated the royalties about Cushing's disease.  She was writing another book, as you mentioned, Jayson it is 33 stories of service dog handlers and she wanted to donate the royalties to a nonprofit with service dogs. So in addition to that, the relationship is growing. She also ended up including Freedom Fidos in the book; it's been an incredible journey. She's just one of the most high caliber, giving, big-hearted people I know. And so now she's very instrumental in Freedom Fidos and we're just ecstatic about the book. My co-partner and one of our board members, Christine and her service dog, Oakley ended up being on the front cover and it really shows their connection. So we're really excited about the book, we really feel like it's a book that the world's been waiting for. It's a tearjerker, is compelling, it's gripping in a must read way and so we're really thankful to Ramona for what she's done.


Jayson:

Very neat and I'm looking forward to getting a copy because anybody that is listening, when you buy a copy the proceeds come back to help Freedom Fidos which is really fantastic. 


Matt Burgess:

Yes, sir. It really is! We're really excited about it. We are a 501(C)(3) non-profit, so that's one of the challenges, is raising the funds so we can keep on supporting our populations because we're all in and hungry to do it. So that the 200 plus, all those voices are on my mind daily and they will lie on my mind and so there's certainly an urgency to play see dogs and the funds from this book are absolutely helpful. So we're really grateful to Ramona.


Jayson:

So anybody that’s listening, if you're a veteran or first responder, or you know someone that fits this, and have issues with PTSD or mobility or anything, please reach out to Matt and his organization or freedomfidos.org and talk with them, there may be some things that he can discuss with you to help and if possibly may be that you end up on the list to receive a dog that may be something that's of help to you. If you have other specialties or you want to become an advisor because you have business acumen, you know how to write grants, you've had business experience, whatever that specialty is, reach out to Matt. Matt would love to talk with you and there's also ways to help go around to different organizations if you're in the Georgia area, and help with the dogs and the fundraising and stuff. So there's a lot of things that are very important that help keep Freedom Fidos running and I would encourage anybody to reach out and talk with Matt and see if you can't be of assistance. So Matt, maybe somebody wants to try and train their own dog. There’s no requirement that a dog has to go through a specific organization for training. If you could give that person two or three bits of information when they go to talk about picking out a dog at a pound one was the tennis ball you mentioned, what other things might they use to try and vet to find the right dog.


Matt Burgess:

I like to really recommend even if they don't end up going through a service dog organization, I would really recommend they find someone experienced with dogs to go to the kennels with them to make sure they get the dog. I don't recommend it because it's a very challenging experience, which takes a lot of time and experience and I've actually had, in my first days, I've actually had dogs where I didn't pick the correct myself and sometimes you don't know and in fact, you may not even know until the last week that the dog may not make it. But I highly recommend that they find someone with service dog experience to help them pick out the right dog. It’s typically not the dog that most individuals would think. 


Jayson:

Interesting. So yes, look at your local services, see about dog training and see what folks offer any type of assistance with going to vet a dog. It might not be a pound dog, it might be a dog where you have a certain breeder in mind and that professional dog trainer can tell you yes, you want to look at puppies here. No, you don't want to look at puppies here. Here's the puppy you want to consider, because as Matt said, you don't want to get to three years into training of the dog and maybe through no fault of the dog. he or she is just not cut out for this and now you have a dog that can't do what you were hoping it to do. What do you do? It brings up a whole other series of issues to deal with.


Matt Burgess:

Yeah, that’s absolutely great advice and for example, when we go to the kennels, there's so many things we have to test for and a lot of it has come through experience. For example, food aggression, or the inability to be compatible with other dogs. There are so many things that have to be looked for. And then sometimes for one of our populations, children with special needs, we actually use a very ethical breeder, we use the Golden Doodles, a very ethical breeder, and have had great results for our population of veterans that have allergies, so they need the golden Doodle, hypoallergenic dogs and so we have a very ethical breeder that we can recommend to anybody and I'd be glad to do so. 


Jayson:

Great. So if that's somebody’s issue (allergies) they're dealing with, then you've got some way to help them with that as well.


Matt Burgess:

Yes, absolutely. We actually had a Golden Doodles in training for children, it was special. We also have them out there with the veterans as they have the allegation we are this breeder out there and just incredible journey and what they're doing. 


Jayson:

Awesome. Now, is there any particular task that's harder to train a dog to do?


Matt Burgess:

Yes, definitely. That's the fine balance we try to find because they have to be the dog. The canines have to be in public and they are service dogs. Well, we're not in any way trying to break their spirit. In fact, we want to enhance their spirit because enhancing their spirit then lets them be motivated to do what they do. And you see their pride and their desire to please and the hardest thing is important because that is when they bark, because that is how they communicate. It's actually Okay. We can't allow that in public. So that's one of the hardest things to correct. To let them understand when it still is okay to bark. For example, if someone comes up to a house okay, but if they see in public, we try to correct that.


Jayson:

Well, I have trained my own dogs; none of them were