Danique Masingill ’13, G’14 was born in Atlanta, and when she was 4 years old her family moved to Germany. She grew up in a diverse community near Frankfurt. When she returned to the U.S. with her family at age 18, she found that schools would not accept a German high school diploma, and her parents insisted on her graduating. “My parents wouldn’t let me get a GED and made me go back to high school at 19 years old,” she says. The return stateside was an adjustment.
“It was a huge culture shock in terms of maturity and interaction. I had a lot of international friends. I had already lived through the Kosovo War,” she says. “When I went to high school in Germany, everything in Yugoslavia was happening. My friends were leaving to go serve in this foreign war that, in the U.S., nobody could relate to.”
Finding Her Path to Education Through Service
After high school, Masingill was inspired to join the military following the 9/11 attacks. She enlisted in 2002 and served for five years as a military policewoman and later as a protective service agent until injuries forced her separation. After she was honorably discharged in 2007, Masingill’s husband was deployed for two years, and she decided to move closer to family in Syracuse.
Masingill wasn’t sure about her next step, so she connected with the vocational rehabilitation program at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Her counselor suggested she attend Syracuse University, so she enrolled using her education benefits through the GI Bill, which provides federal educational assistance to service members, veterans and their dependents. The VA’s vocational program allowed her to choose from over 200 undergraduate degree programs. Masingill decided to pursue a B.A. in history and German .
I didn’t know what was available until I started connecting with other vets. Syracuse is where it all started.—Danique Masingill
While attending summer class at Syracuse, Masingill received a phone call that changed the trajectory of her life. A close friend and dog handler she had served with was killed in a car accident. “We were best friends, and that really shook my world,” she says. At her friend’s funeral, his service dog mourned alongside his family. The grieving dog left a lasting impression on Masingill.
Feeling isolated on campus, she turned to Syracuse University’s Student Veterans Organization (SVO) for support. Connecting with other veterans helped her through grief and inspired her. Through the SVO, Masingill learned about additional resources and programs offered by the University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. “I didn’t know what was available until I started connecting with other vets. Syracuse is where it all started,” she says.
Masingill saw firsthand how other student veterans were applying for service dogs, and she became concerned about some of the challenges veterans faced. With the goal of improving the accessibility and reliability of service animals for veterans, Masingill entered the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs’ Executive Master of Public Administration program. She worked with professors to personalize her program of study, and focused her research on the analysis of special operations canines, multipurpose dogs, budgeting and policy. In conjunction with her degree, she earned graduate certificates in conflict resolution and security studies.
“On the conflict resolution side, I set out to study canine service animal policy and found that there is none,” she says. With the average cost to properly train a service dog between $25,000 and $40,000 depending on the level of training needed, the high price tag attracts dishonest practices and fraud. “There’s currently no government oversight on service dogs, so there’s no regulating agency and no recourse if something goes wrong,” she says. Without regulation, Masingill says, reliable data on the effectiveness of service dogs is elusive.
Making a Difference in the Lives of Veterans
After completing her master’s degree, Masingill worked for one of the largest service dog programs in the country and later as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., a combination that helped her better understand the service dog industry. She’s worked in practically every role in the industry, from shadowing trainers to helping veterans select the best animal for them. Her graduate research findings and professional experience became the foundation of Leashes of Valor , a nonprofit that Masingill co-founded in 2017. The organization’s mission is to provide trained service dogs to post-9/11 veterans dealing with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Leashes of Valor is equal parts residential training program and advocacy organization. On the residential side, when a veteran applies for a service dog, that animal is custom-trained and certified through testing. The veteran is then invited to Leashes of Valor’s campus in Virginia for a 16-day residency. “It’s comparable to when you’re training somebody with a prosthetic,” says Masingill. “You show them how to walk, how it works, what the commands are. You’ve got to turn them into knowledgeable dog handler.” Her dogs are trained to perform tasks like nightmare interruption, medication retrieval or when to recognize dissociative episodes. “These are all key things because they make a huge difference for somebody with traumatic brain injury or PTSD,” she says. Every aspect of the pairing through the program is completely free to the veteran, funded by donations or by Leashes of Valor’s three founders.
On the advocacy side, Masingill is using research from her graduate degree to help enact positive change industrywide. Last year, through her lobbying work, Masingill met with the prime minister of Australia and presented an original paper she’d worked on as a graduate student at Syracuse. Her research on multipurpose dogs suggested increasing the role of working dogs in the special operations community could be beneficial in helping deal with emotional trauma. Currently there are two bills under consideration in the U.S. Congress that are partly inspired by insights in that paper.
Aided by the Orange alumni network, Masingill and her partners are now placing service dogs with every veteran who needs one, free of charge, and working to overhaul the industry. Leashes of Valor works with human resource professionals, airlines and federal agencies to improve the accessibility of working dogs in the workplace and while traveling. Last fall, Leashes of Valor began researching the treatment of PTSD with service dogs through a partnership with Thomas Jefferson College of Nursing in Philadelphia. This is the first step toward being able to prescribe service dogs at some point in the future, says Masingill. The hope is to get service dogs into a hospital setting for further study soon.
Over the course of her career, Masingill has helped facilitate more than 300 service dog pairings. Looking back, she says the support from other student veterans at the SVO helped her feel at home.
“I was definitely struggling on campus. It was a different culture and lifestyle,” she says. “Leashes of Valor wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t been pushed to come to Syracuse University and find my people.”