This Able Veteran’s Service Dog Trainer Elise and Her Cross-Country Road-Trip Adventure

Service dog trainer, Elise Ratajczyk and actor, Jason Spisak, walking to lunch in Carbondale during the Salukicon event.

Pippin resting on the trail in Arizona.

Elise, Jason and Malea

On the hiking trail with Pippin.

Elise and Pippin enjoyed their 5,000 mile trip often stopping at small attractions and oddities along the way as they traveled on Route 66.

Pippin enjoyed camping along the way to California and loves the great outdoors!

One of the quirky places they came to was the Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma, a giant waterfront structure build in the 1970s. Elise says Pippin wasn’t sure what he and his buddy were posing in front of, but they are always game for anything.

Pippin proudly poses in front of Cadillac Ranch and the Second Amendment Cowboy in Texas.

Elise Ratajczk has been a service dog trainer for This Able Veteran since 2021. During this time, Elise has met several famous people while out training, some of which include politicians and celebrities. This past spring while attending SalukiCon at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Elise met Jason Spisak, an actor, producer, computer programmer in animation and video games, and producer and founding member of Blackchalk Productions.

Many fans know Spisak through his successful voice-over career, which spans more than 27 years. Jason has created the voices of Silco in Arcane, The Joker in Batman Hush, Lux Bonteri and Cristo on “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” the Lego Joker in two Warner Brothers animated movies, Kid Flash/Wally West on “Young Justice,” Scorpion in Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man for PS4, the voice of the disembodied Silias for “Vampire Diaries” on CW, Justin Hammer in Disney XD “Avengers Assemble,” Silico on “Power Puff Girls,” Paralon in “Transformers,” and loads more.

Jason says that while he was at SalukiCon in Carbondale last spring, he met Elise and
Edmond (the black poodle she was training) cosplaying characters from one of the shows Jason is in. He says that caught his attention.

“Whenever I travel, I hate sitting in my hotel room during my time off. I like to find fans who can recommend good local restaurants and then I invite them to join me for lunch,” said Spisak.

Elise said she is always up for an adventure, so when Spisak asked where to go for lunch, she and her friend Malea invited him to go to nearby Blend Tea and Crepe Lounge.

“I watched Elise work with Edmond and was in awe of how she trained him despite the crowd of people surrounding us. She really inspired me and as we talked over lunch, I realized she and Malea are the type of folks I like to have in my life,” said Spisak.

As they ate and talked, Elise shared her passion for This Able Veteran with Jason and the work she does training service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

“It became clear to me early on that This Able Veteran service dog trainers have a true gift. They don’t view dogs as animals. They view and treat the service dogs as their peers, which was lovely to watch. Elise told me that people often need a friend in their lives, sometimes physically and emotionally. That struck a chord in me,” said Spisak.

Malea and Elise also shared their upcoming summer road trip plans with Spisak, which included a trip to California to work at Paramount Studios. Spisak realized their tripwould take them right by Flagstaff, Arizona, which is his home.

“I thought it would be great to give them a rest from the road and show them Flagstaff. Plus, we could help stretch the service dog’s legs by taking him on a hike,” he said.

The trainers rotate the service dogs in their care, to ensure that they can all be handled by different people and experience different environments. By the time they set off for their trip, Elise had rotated with Edmond, the black poodle, to Pippin, the yellow lab.

“Pippin is a lovely boy. During our hike, Elise asked him to carry a stick as long as his body. It was hard not to laugh as we watched him try to navigate the trail. It was as if it were his duty. He was such a good boy in a brand-new space,” said Spisak.

When asked what he thought about Elise and Malea’s trip across the country with Pippin, Spisak did not hesitate.

“Elise has a genuine heart, and she inspires us. To take a service dog 5,000 miles across the country is amazing. She makes sure she is doing the right thing for the veteran on the other side of the process by the amount of time, care and effort she and her team puts forth with the service dogs. It’s a beautiful relationship and I am so honored to have established a new friendship with Malea, Elise, and Pippin,” said Spisak.

Spisak was so moved by the story of This Able Veteran, he immediately became a new fan and donor to the organization. To learn how you can support This Able Veteran, visit

#veterans #nonprofit #veteranlove #servicedogs #donate #thisableveteran #ptsd



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This Able Veteran Service Dog and Trainer Graduate Together

We don’t say it lightly when we emphasize how much all of our trainers care about This Able Veteran’s dogs in training. They are such a force; a team that works tirelessly 24/7 the entirety of the 18 months it takes to raise one class of working dogs.

One of our trainers recently graduated Southern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science that she fully plans on using to better the lives of the animals in her care, including  TAV dogs. She brought the dogs with her to every class she took every day for two years, just to make sure they could be trained in public access work while she was actively studying.

On graduation day, Elise Ratajczyk walked up on stage with the company of the service dog in training she was currently assigned. Her graduation cap sported the This Able Veteran’s logo to show just how proud she is to be part of something so meaningful to these veteran’s lives. She stresses that “I wouldn’t be where I am without the patience of my team, the endless hours of my peers and Behesha teaching me everything I know, and their flexibility in helping me finish up my degree.”

Stay tuned for upcoming posts of Elise as she  takes an epic cross-country road trip with This Able Veteran’s service dog, Pippin.

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This Able Veteran Spotlight: Meet Dani Figueroa, This Able Veteran Graduate, and Her Dog, Valor

Dani Figueroa completed the Trauma Resiliency Program at This Able Veteran (TAV) in the fall of 2020.  At the end of the program, she was paired with her service dog, Valor.  Dani is currently an artist in residence in Lorton, Virginia, with the Workhouse Military in the Arts Initiative (WMAI) program, which is a program for active or retired service members who want to create original works of art in a collaborative environment.  Dani credits This Able Veteran as the catalyst for becoming an artist in residence. 
“As I prepared to go to TAV’s 21-day Trauma Resiliency Program, I debated about whether to take my guitar.  I was anxious about traveling for the first time with a service dog during the pandemic, and only wanted to travel light,” said Figueroa.
In the months before TAV’s program, the veterans are paired with mentors who work with the veterans before and during the program.  Figueroa was paired with Kim DeFiori (and her dog, Thor) and they quickly connected.
“Kim talked to me about the importance of self-care, especially during the course, so I trusted her and brought my guitar.  It was then I realized music as an important self-care tool that helps me stay in the moment.  On the night I graduated, and was officially paired with my service dog, I wondered,  “What would it be like to Create With Valor?”  This thought was like a coin, because it had two sides.  (What would it be like to create with him physically by my side, but also with bravery or value?),“ said Figueroa.
After her graduation from TAV’s program, Figueroa was selected to be an artist in residence with WMAI.
“My residency ends in June with a final show that will run for three months.  It will combine music and visual art.  The title I’ve given it is “Together.”  It’s about strength and growth, and what happens when there’s connection, service, and support.  I consider TAV to be a huge contributing factor to the path I am currently on with my art,”  said Figueroa.
Figueroa says that through TAV’s dog training and the 21-day Trauma Resiliency Program, she now has the tools to take over after Valor has stepped in.
“I belong to a strong pack not only with myself and Valor, also with my peers, and with the staff that I can turn to and lean on in time of need.  I can now say my life and focus, as a result of TAV and Valor, are about the ‘This-Ability’ instead of the ‘Dis-Ability,’” she said.
Figueroa would highly encourage other veterans suffering from PTSD to apply for TAV’s Trauma Resiliency Program.
“It took me a very long time to apply.  My belief was that I didn’t have it as bad as other military members, so I didn’t rate a service dog.  I am grateful I took that step and sent in my application.  I could never have imagined living a healthier more connected life,”  said Figueroa.
Since Valor has been in her life, she has experienced so much joy with him.
“There are two amazing moments that rise to the top for me.  One, is having been a mentor; and two, having played at Kim’s wedding.  It was so amazing to have shared that moment with her and her wife, with all of our service dogs, and to meet their extended families and close friends.” she said. 
Figueroa has created a website,, with the intention to pay it forward through art sales and commissions, and to highlight the organizations that have given so much to her and others.  This Able Veteran highly encourages its readers to visit and see photos of Figueroa and Valor along with her artwork, and blog.  She also has listed This Able Veteran and Victor Pet Foods as organizations she supports.
If you would like to learn more about This Able Veteran and its mission, please visit  To learn how you can support This Able Veteran, visit
#veterans #nonprofit #veteranlove #servicedogs #donate #thisableveteran #ptsd
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Massac Quilters Guild Raises Donations for This Able Veteran Six Years in a Row

Massac Quilter’s Guild president Janet Mittendorf (third from left, front row) presents the group’s donation to This Able Veteran executive director Rebecca Renshaw. The group raised $2,442 during the 2023 AQS Paducah Quilt Show with its raffle of two quilts. Guild members present are Irene Reising, Charlene Sirmer, Sarah Crim, Martha Bowman, Diane Block, Faith Hammel, and Lorraine Ashby.


The members of the Massac Quilters Guild have long believed in the power of giving back to others. Over the years, they have created a variety of items to help others — from pillowcase dresses, items for Lourdes Hospice, to pillowcases for area nursing homes.

“Those things were good,” said president Janet Mittendorf. “But we decided we wanted to do something that would make a bigger difference.”

The group decided that would be by helping veterans, but they weren’t sure how to find a local organization.

And then, Mittendorf attended a Red Hats Society meeting where This Able Veteran representatives were speaking and passing out brochures.

“I thought their program sounded amazing, so I contacted them,” Mittendorf said. “We decided we wanted to find a place that was helping veterans and we knew they were getting the help they need. We’ve found something and stuck with it.”

That was 2017 since the partnership began. Since then, Massac Quilters Guild has made and raffled off quilts, raising thousands of dollars for the veterans’ organization. That latest donation was presented to This Able Veteran executive director Rebecca Renshaw on June 5.

The raffling of two quilts raised $2,442.80 during the 2023 AQS Paducah Quilt Show.

Those funds are used by This Able Veteran to train service dogs for U.S. military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Headquartered in Carbondale, This Able Veteran has been helping veterans since 2011. Serving veterans from around the country, it was founded by Behesha Doan, who is the organization’s training director and the owner of Extreme K-9. As a trauma survivor, Doan brings insight to how a correctly trained service dog, combined with a trauma resiliency program, can make a difference in the lives of those suffering from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and those with co-occurring substance abuse. Through This Able Veteran, Doan has developed a veteran-centric model of care that involves the veterans, their clinicians, the service dogs and This Able Veteran.

Renshaw explained the training program costs over $30,000 for each service dog as they get the service dogs as puppies to start training them right away. The dogs go home every night with a trainer and are specially trained for each veteran.

“There’s a very strenuous process we go through to select both the veterans and the dogs. Service dogs are selected based on their temperament, structural soundness, proven lineage of healthy genetics and several other qualifications. Veterans must fill out an online application to be considered for the program,” Renshaw emphasized.

“Once selected, we find out what they need,” Renshaw said. “We pair the dog with the veteran based on where the veteran lives, the veteran’s lifestyle, and the temperament of them both. We train that dog for that veteran specifically.”

During its almost 12-year history, This Able Veteran has graduated 80 pairs of dogs and veterans. The next class is set to graduate in late October.

“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” Mittendorf said.

Massac Quilters Guild members have already begun the work on the quilt they will be raffling off during the 2024 AQS Paducah Quilt Show. The fabric and other materials will be donated allowing proceeds to go to This Able Veteran. The members divvy up the work of each block and then put it all together by January.

“Ticket sales will begin in February. Tickets are $1 each and available from guild members or during the April quilt show, during which AQS allows us to sell tickets at the Julian Carroll Convention Center,” said Mittendorf.

The Massac Quilters Guild was organized in 1983 to encourage interest in all phases of quilting. The group meets the first Monday of the month at the Metropolis Community Center at 9:30 a.m. with doors opening at 9 a.m. Meetings are held the second Monday if the meeting day falls on a holiday.

“We’re a very small group, but we try to get a lot done,” Mittendorf said.

For more information on This Able Veteran, visit

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This Able Veteran Spotlight: Meet Jon Steele, This Able Veteran Graduate, and His Dog, Lobo

Jon Steele completed the Trauma Resiliency Program at This Able Veteran in the fall of 2020. At the end of the program, he was paired with his service dog, Lobo, and it’s been a lasting match ever since. Recently, he and Lobo were asked by Mid America Pet Food Company to go to Dallas and be in a video featuring veterans and their service dogs. Naturally, Jon jumped at the chance and he and Lobo flew to Dallas in early March. The video will be aired later this month.

“The experience was so much fun! It was amazing to see how much coordination and effort goes into a video shoot like this. All the crew were so friendly and helpful, and my hat goes off to them for their excellence!” said Steele. “Lobo was amazing of course. I had him vested most of the time, either for the shoot or working. He certainly helped me stay present and comfortable on set.”

Steele says that This Able Veteran’s program was something he will never forget and that he is so grateful to have participated.

“The Trauma Resiliency Program was tough, with a lot of information and emotions, but worth every second. The people at This Able Veteran are simply the best people and program you could imagine. I feel like I was introduced to a whole new family that I’m thankful and proud to be a part of!”

Steele encourages other veterans who are suffering from PTSD to consider applying to This Able Veteran.

“This Able Veteran provided me with the expertise and support to be more introspective. I have a much better understanding of what is triggering me and how to mitigate it. My marriage has strengthened and relationships that were nearly severed are now very strong,” said Steele.

Steele lives in Thornton, Colorado, approximately 30 minutes north of Denver and he is a cyber security engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space. Steele says he and his wife enjoy taking Lobo for hikes in the Colorado Mountains, and swimming with him in nearby lakes.

‘I love watching him run and play in the water like a little pup. He has brought me so much joy!”

If you would like to learn more about This Able Veteran and its mission, please visit To learn how you can support This Able Veteran, visit


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