Program enlists dogs to help Vermont veterans
MIDDLEBURY — Dale Tucker scooped up a tennis ball and sent it hurtling into the teeth of an unseasonably warm wind that was swirling around the new Middlebury dog park last Tuesday.
His beautiful young German shepherd, Abby, dutifully gave chase.
Abby kept one eye on the ball and the other on Tucker, the center of her universe. Her bond to Tucker is being strengthened through a program called Vermont Paws & Boots, which trains service dogs to aid military veterans and first responders who need a constant companion for savings that can be life-saving.
Launched in 2015 by Vermont State Police Cpl. Michelle LeBlanc and her mom, Ann LeBlanc, Vermont Paws & Boots has already graduated four service dog teams and is schooling a new crop of recruits, including Abby and Tucker, a U.S. Army veteran who lives in Bristol.
“It’s been a big help,” said Tucker, who served a 15-month tour in Vietnam during the late-1960s and who now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and arthritis.
LeBlanc, who is assigned to the VSP’s New Haven barracks, is a former member of the U.S. Army Military Police. And she knows a little something about dogs. LeBlanc and her trusty former K-9 partner Casko spent more than 11 years fighting crime, making it the longest running K-9 team in the history of the VSP.
An in-the-line-of-duty injury forced Casko to hang up his police vest in October 2015. He has since died. LeBlanc is keeping his memory alive in part through her work with Vermont Paws & Boots, or VP&B, through which she leads weekly training sessions with young dogs and their owners, who have given so much to so many.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss K-9 Casko, but he is living through this program, and you couldn’t ask for anything better than that,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc was able to start the VP&B program thanks to a donation from the Essex Rotary Club. She developed a relationship with the owners of Little Woof Small Dog Rescue of Essex Junction. LeBlanc is able to source potential service dogs through Little Woof for qualifying veterans or first responders who don’t have their own.
It should be noted that VP&B is in no way part of her duties with state police. She runs the program on her own time, outside of her work schedule.
There are four handlers with dogs in the current VP&B class, and a total of nine have enrolled during the program’s brief history. Sadly, one VP&B program participant took his own life prior to completing the course, which further underscores the emotional and physical pain the some veterans and first responders are facing.
NEW HANDLERS WELCOME
LeBlanc welcomes any qualifying handler and dog that can faithfully attend her weekly classes. Each of those sessions — held in different parts of the state for the convenience of the trainees — lasts two to four hours. Trainees must also sign a contract that spells out strict attendance standards; three missed classes (without good reason) and you’re out of VP&B.
Each applicant must write an essay indicating how they could benefit from a service dog. They must be cleared by a doctor, as the training requires some exercise. Each applicant must submit to an interview and a house check to make sure their abode is well suited for a dog.
“I’ve had a prospective student call me from Maine who wants to come,” she said. “I have no boundaries or limits. If you want to drive from Maine once per week, come on down.”
LeBlanc screens each dog to see if he or she is suitable for the program. For example, there’s temperament testing and they must possess motivation that can be triggered by snacks, toys and/or love.
“Just as with police dogs, everything is positive reinforcement,” LeBlanc said of her overarching philosophy.
The new “recruits” can’t be more than three years old. You can teach older dogs a few new tricks, but it’s a lot easier when they’re young and energetic.
“We want them to have a long life with their handlers,” LeBlanc explained.
The average police dog has a service life of five to seven before retirement, according to LeBlanc. The VP&B dogs are expected to exceed that service span because — unlike their K-9 counterparts — they aren’t asked to routinely run through woods, leap over culverts and neutralize suspects.
“The wear and tear on their bodies is not like it is with a police dog,” she said.
As one might imagine, VP&B benefits greatly from LeBlanc’s experience as a K-9 handler, and she takes no shortcuts. Each dog (and its owner) is expected to spend at least 250 hours in training. The dogs are expected to respond to both voice and hand commands.
“When these dogs graduate, they become a tool to assist (their owners),” LeBlanc said. “A service dog has to provide a specific task for that individual.”
Those tasks range from picking up items the veteran cannot reach due to injury, to providing critical attention and comfort if the owner is suffering an emotional episode due to PTSD.
If human and dog successfully jump through all the requisite training hoops — usually within a span of six to eight months — they become graduates. A new service dog is born, and is then required to become recertified each year.
“Everything is earned,” LeBlanc said, noting the thrill participants feel when their dogs receive their service vests — a key reward for progress made — several months into the program.
FIRST RESPONDERS TOO
There are other service dog programs for veterans. But VP&B is the only program of its kind that is also for first responders, including firefighters, EMTs, emergency room nurses and police officers.
LeBlanc observed that while first responders aren’t thrust into battlefield conditions, they are typically the first to arrive at the scenes of major car crashes, murders, suicides and domestic assaults. Those traumatic, often heart wrenching scenes can stay with a law enforcement or medical official and take an emotional toll. LeBlanc noted 100 police officers nationwide committed suicide last year.
“That just keeps stacking up,” LeBlanc said of the internal stress crime scenes can impose on first responders.
Tucker learned of VP&B through one of LeBlanc’s pamphlets. He called her and eventually enrolled with Abby.
While Abby is only a few months into her training, she’s already become indispensable to her owner.
Abby routinely helps Tucker up a lengthy set of stairs to their apartment. She walks in a zigzag manner to give him extra leverage on the leash that connects them.
That connection goes far beyond the leash.
“She knows when I’m in trouble,” Tucker said. “There are times when I’m in a lot of pain. If she hears me moaning, she comes a-runnin’. We’ve become very close.”
She provides unconditional love and devotion. She is so committed to Tucker that she won’t let him take a shower without him keeping the bathroom door open.
“If I’m taking too long, she’ll take a look around the shower curtain to make sure I’m in there,” he said with a chuckle.
Abby’s presence and affection helps reassure Tucker and soothe his nerves and pain. He recalled a nightmare that ended with him falling on the floor.
“She was right there, licking my face and brought me back to reality,” he said, clearly moved. “She stayed right with me.”
Tucker said he and Abby don’t consider the VP&B training to be “work.”
“It’s fun,” he said of the classes. “Michelle has been absolutely great. That lady is very special. I could call her at 2 a.m. and she would talk to me. She’s there for you.”
While LeBlanc volunteers her time, the program has expenses. The leashes and vests both cost $45. LeBlanc used to pay most of the bills out of her own pocket. Fortunately, she’s been getting some donations from civic groups, veterans organizations, grants and individuals. For more information on how to contribute, log on to facebook.com/VermontPaws, or vermontpawsandboots.org.
“There’s no donation that’s too little or too high,” LeBlanc said.
While K-9 Casko went on to his great reward, LeBlanc might have a new police dog waiting I the wings. Sila, a Czech shepherd, is her current sidekick and he has direct lineage to Casko. He’s taking mental notes at classes and is showing great potential as a future K-9 officer. LeBlanc said she’d seek to extend her VSP career for another seven or eight years if she can become part of a K-9 team with Sila. If that doesn’t work out, she said she’s likely to retire within the next year or two and devote her attention full time to VP&B.
Asked what gives her the most satisfaction running VP&B, LeBlanc said it is the changes she sees in many of her “students.” She recalled one introverted trainee who made a quick turnaround.
“This gentleman didn’t say ‘boo,’” she recalled. “It was difficult to read him on any given day. By the time we graduated, he broke out of his shell and started going out and about and doing things on his own. His wife was amazed. She said, ‘I’ve got my husband back.’”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.