For military veterans, shelter dogs could be lifesavers

Pairing wounded military veterans with shelter dogs isn’t easy, but it just might save the lives of both.

WORDS Bill Kearney
May 2018
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Photography Marcos Garcia

Army master sergeant Jeff Davis fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, completing three tours of duty, jumping from airplanes at night, running convoys from Turkey into northern Iraq, commanding teams operating howitzer cannons. He’s a lean 41-year-old recently retired veteran now, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When I first meet him, he speaks quietly and keeps his eyes off mine.

Davis leads a bright-eyed 40-pound dutch shepherd mix named Boogie through an obstacle course on the open lawn. We’re at Advanced Canine Systems, a training center in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The dog scrambles through a plastic pipe, then strides up a seesaw and down the other side. Davis doles out treats and praise along the way. At a 6-foot plywood A-frame, however, things start to go wrong. The dog leaps but loses his grip before he reaches the top, sliding down the panel. Again they try. Boogie struggles, falls back, lands hard.

After he fails for a third time, the dog looks miserable, as does Davis. He doesn’t know what to do: Help the dog over the obstacle? Reprimand him? Give up? He tries one more time and Boogie slides down again. Looking on is the center’s owner Michael Lorraine, a canine trainer with 20 years of experience.

The training taking place today is part of a program Lorraine runs that matches military veterans who are physically or emotionally challenged with shelter dogs who have the right qualities—intelligence, focus, drive—to be service animals. “I want to see super-social dogs,” he says. “Sometimes they’re crazy—you can see how they’d end up in a shelter—but there can be no fearfulness, no aggression.”

The process starts with a nonprofit group called the Renewal Coalition, which identifies veterans in need and refers them to Lorraine. He then recruits dogs from a nearby shelter, working with them for a year before they’re matched with their potential owners. It’s a long and difficult process, and the sessions underway at ACS this week mark its culmination. The dogs are trained and more or less ready to go, and now Lorraine wants to make sure the veterans are equipped to handle them. He’s training the trainers.

Davis training Beetle on the obstacle course

If the program is successful, if man and dog click, the relationship can help an injured veteran physically, or ease the debilitating effects of PTSD. Boogie’s just one of a dozen or so dogs that veteran Davis will be working with for the next few days. The hope is, he’ll take one of them home with him to Ohio.

“I don’t have core strength, so when I go to pick up my laundry it’s really difficult. Now, I just have Charlie drag it over. It’s the little things that make life way easier.”

Also here this week is Eli Chastain, a stocky 24-year-old former Marines communications specialist with a smooth Georgia drawl. He recently had a brain tumor removed—a procedure that took out a section of his left inner ear, leaving him prone to disorientation, which in turn has made the former outdoorsman, in his own words, “a bit of a shut-in.” On bad days, he experiences punishing headaches and loses his balance. “I drop a lot of stuff, and when I bend down to pick it up, I’m falling over on my face. It’s kind of a kick in the tush.” He’s also had bouts of explosive anger, and a creeping sense that civilian life isn’t working.

As for Davis, the last couple of years have been tough. A lung cancer diagnosis coupled with lesions in his brain have exacerbated his PTSD. The lesions have caused coordination problems. He can no longer use a keyboard, and he’s not allowed to drive for fear of seizures. “The way I felt last year, I was doing a lot of feeling sorry for myself, sitting on the couch. I wasn’t good around people.” Davis’ wife has become his caretaker, something he’s not comfortable with. It’s a shocking decline for a man who’s completed 55 paratrooper jumps, and he hopes a service dog will help him move confidently through the world again. Both men, Davis and Chastain, want to regain at least some of their independence, and with this, their self-assurance.

First, though, they’ll need to solve the human-dog relationship, which is as tricky now as it always is. If the animals at ACS this week were intended to be pets, a few rough edges would be OK. Service dogs, however, need to be perfectly mannered while accompanying their owners to work, restaurants, the airport. Lorraine has trained 42 dogs for veterans over the years. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. “Take a break from the A-frame,” he yells out to Davis, and has him work on less daunting obstacles.

Matt Kleeman with his dog, Charlie Brown, whom he has trained to flip light switches as well as retrieve objects

One of Lorraine’s biggest success stories so far is 24-year-old Matt Kleemann, a former Navy diver who specialized in underwater repairs on submarines. In late 2012, driving home along a snowy road, he swerved to avoid a deer and plunged over a cliff. When he awoke, he was paralyzed from the chest down. “I started to struggle, mentally, like, ‘Wow, this sucks. How am I ever going to have a girlfriend?’ Stuff like that,” he recalls. “It was difficult.” Wheelchair-bound, he came to train with Lorraine about 18 months ago. “The original plan was for me to just get my dog, Charlie Brown, but Mike saw potential in me. So, I started to come down every day.” He now serves as a mentor to visiting veterans, and Charlie isn’t doing too bad, either.

Today, in an open-air training area, Kleemann slides off his wheelchair and lies down to demonstrate what he calls a “floor transfer.” On command, his four-year-old chocolate Lab rushes over and wriggles his nose under Kleemann’s arm, positioning his shoulders so he can press up, one hand on the dog and one on the wheelchair. After this, Kleemann uses a laser pointer to guide Charlie to a light switch, which he turns off, then to a 35-pound laundry basket, which he pulls across the floor.

“The biggest thing for me is that basket,” says Kleemann. “I don’t have core strength, so when I go to pick up my laundry it’s really difficult. Now, I just have Charlie drag it over. It’s the little things that make life way easier.” He smiles and scratches the dog’s head. “I trained him a couple weeks ago to open up the fridge and grab a beer.” Charlie has even helped him with his social life, Kleemann says. “For sure, when I bring him to the bar, the girls are like, ‘Aww. He’s a good-looking dog.’”

Before arriving at ACS, Charlie was languishing in a nearby shelter, dropped off for barking too much and general “bad behavior.” Kleemann saw something else. “I had options on other dogs, but I started working with Charlie and right off the bat I was like, ‘I want him.’ A year ago, he was very unsure of himself, just nervous. He’s opened up a lot.” He scratches Charlie’s head again and the dog leans into his wheelchair.

Davis working the A-frame with Surri

Through the week, Davis and Chastain work with several dogs, until Lorraine decides which ones make for a good fit: a dog named Hoplon for Davis and one named Shorty for Chastain. They’re both leggy Belgian Malinois, a breed whose combination of speed, strength and smarts make them the dog of choice for police and protection work. These same qualities, however, cause many people to shy away. “A lot of trainers say, ‘Oh, you can’t have a Malinois as a service dog. They have too much energy. They’re too strong.’ That’s bullcrap,” says Lorraine. “With Jeff and Eli, since the No. 1 thing is being active, doing awesome and fun things, they need a dog who can keep up.”

As the men lead Hoplon and Shorty through basic heels and sits, Lorraine primes them for what’s to come. “Dogs will test you, try to B.S. you,” he says. “There’s gonna be stretches where they don’t do what you want.” To make the relationship work, the men will have to understand what makes their animals tick—get out of their own head and into the animals’. “If the dog is saying ‘screw you,’ make a correction [such as a snap on the collar]. If the dog is confused, it’s your fault. Know the difference.”

“When you get out, in our society, it’s very individualistic. That can be very jarring for men and women who’ve grown accustomed to the group being more important than the self. With the service dog, there’s teamwork that helps to reaffirm that idea.”

The mood around the obstacle course is improving. Chastain and Shorty do a perfect “brace,” where Shorty helps Chastain back on his feet. When Hoplon hesitates on the seesaw and jumps off, Davis loops him around to try again, this time letting him eat halfway across, then leading him with food the whole way. On the next pass, he nails it. “Good work with the eyes, Jeff,” yells Lorraine. “You’re gonna need that connection.” Later, Davis remarks that the process reminds him of his military training—the mantra “crawl, walk, run” they used when learning complex activities, like how to parachute at night: Study your actions on the ground, perfect your actions in rehearsal, get up in the air and jump. Chastain nods and adds, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”

The basic training analogy actually has deeper implications. BJ Ganem, a veteran of the Iraq War who runs Sierra Delta, another nonprofit group that helps veterans find service dogs, points out that the canine-human relationship echoes a crucial element of military life. “In your four-person fire team, there’s always someone you can count on,” he says. “When you get out, in our society, it’s very individualistic. That can be very jarring for men and women who’ve grown accustomed to the group being more important than the self. With the service dog, there’s teamwork that helps to reaffirm that idea.”

There can be an awful sense of alienation and loss when a veteran returns from service, a feeling that one’s life lacks purpose and structure, which in turn can lead to depression. A 2014 study found that suicide rates were 22 percent higher among U.S. veterans than the adult population overall. And while there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence about service dogs easing the symptoms of PTSD—which is thought to afflict around 10 to 18 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan—there’s an increasing amount of hard evidence, too. A recent Purdue University study found that of veterans with PTSD, those with service dogs had lower levels of depression and lower levels of social isolation.

“What we’ve seen over time,” Ganem says, “is that men and women who are struggling, when they get paired with a service dog, you see them become better sons, better daughters, better parents. The dog gives them that sense of purpose again, that ability to care for another that also cares for them.”

Watching the Malinois go through the paces is an impressive sight. They’re not concerned with other dogs, or the cats wandering about. But even this level of focus and discipline isn’t enough to make them viable service dogs. To get to the point where it can walk off-leash through city streets, or sit silently at a high-end restaurant, or walk a mountain trail without bolting after squirrels, a dog needs to have a vested interest in getting it right. For this reason, their meals are doled out as they work, like a paycheck—a 10-minute session of precise heeling and retrieving makes for a nice lunch. “You’ll never get a dog to this level without existential training. They have to work to exist,” says Lorraine. “If we don’t have the five minutes a day to do this, we shouldn’t have a dog.” 

Chastain with Sparky, one of the many dogs he worked with

Which is not to say that this is a subservient relationship. To really work, there needs to be give-and-take, a partnership, a fact that Chastain, on the final day of training, is beginning to understand. “On one hand, Shorty provides a sense of security. We’re in this together,” he says, sitting with the dog on the ACS lawn. “On the other hand, I’m going to be responsible for taking care of him before myself.” As a result, he adds, he has little time for anxiety and self-doubt. “It gives me something to focus on and really dial in on.” One of his goals is getting back on a bicycle. “I dabbled with it before I came down, and it was rough,” he says, laughing. “But I’m thoroughly confident the dog’s gonna give me the motivation, like, I am getting on that bike today. I’m going to do it. If I fall, he’ll help me back up: ‘OK, let’s go again’.”

That phrase—let’s go again—becomes the overriding theme as the week wears on. By way of repetition and sheer determination, the men and their dogs achieve a sense of rhythm, a kind of flow. Davis leads Hoplon to the same A-frame he had so much trouble with earlier in the week, when handling Boogie. I expect him to be nervous, but Davis is smooth, relaxed, and Hoplon clears the A-frame enthusiastically. Both men, in the end, take their dogs home. I ask Davis if this prospect makes him nervous at all, and he looks me straight in the eye. “The only problem I foresee next week,” he says, “is that I’ll be just as ugly as I am this week.”

A few weeks later, I check in with Davis and Chastain to see how things are going. Both had successfully walked their dogs through airport security, they tell me, and both had them sit, well-mannered, on the commercial flight home.

Chastain has been bringing Shorty to the vape shop where he works, and is training him to carry bags around the counter to the customers. He’s successfully biked with Shorty as well, and says he’s laughed more in the past two weeks than in the past two years. “He’s a funny dude. He just sits with what looks like a smile on his face, licks me and cracks me up.”

Davis has brought Hoplon to church and to stores to do some shopping with his family. He and his wife are teaching him new commands together, and he’s got big plans for himself and Hoplon—a hiking trip and a half marathon in June. “I’m gonna get out and do those things,” he says. “I’m gonna change.”

 

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