Service dog helps veterans find a purpose for living
By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Region – Since 9/11, dogs have become an important part of homeland security, both in the military and law enforcement. March 13 marks K9 Veterans Day, an unofficial holiday recognized in some cities and states to honor those dogs.
Specially trained dogs are now taking on a new role in the military: as service dogs for returning soldiers and veterans.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Valiant Veterans, based in Worcester, is one of the many organizations working to lower that number through programs to help veterans return home to civilian life and overcome afflictions associated with military service.
Amanda Sullivan, a Shrewsbury resident who is the executive director of Valiant Veterans, said that veterans often come home without a purpose, which can lead to depression. Dogs can give veterans “a reason to get up in the morning, something to be responsible for,” she said. “It gives them a purpose.”
In November, she adopted Gunnar, a Siberian Husky/Alaskan Malamute mix that she is training to be a service dog for a returning veteran.
Sullivan said she chose the mix of those two breeds specifically.
“Huskies are too active and high-energy,” she explained. “Malamutes are more subdued, but too big for a service dog.”
Gunnar has more of the Malamute temperament, but with the size of a Husky, about 65 to 70 pounds full-grown.
Sullivan is not a certified trainer, but has been “learning along the way.” It helps, she said, that Gunnar seems “naturally predisposed” to being a service dog.
“He makes it easy,” she said.
Gunnar is being trained to be a companion to a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury. Veteran service dogs need to be calm, but alert, according to Sullivan. They need to be able to sense when there is a situation that might cause their owner to become anxious or agitated. They are the veteran's “battle buddy,” Sullivan said.
Now just seven months old, Gunnar will be given to his new owner at 18 months. Although the soldier who will receive Gunnar has already been chosen, Sullivan said they are keeping his or her identity a secret for now.
Since his adoption by Valiant Veterans, Gunnar has attracted a lot of attention. He has his own Facebook page with nearly 5,000 likes.
“It's been out of control,” Sullivan remarked.
He has been busy visiting veterans, schoolchildren, reservists, and other groups all over Massachusetts to raise awareness about service dogs and the benefits they give service members.
Gunnar has teamed up with Midas, the 2014 mascot for Dogs on Deployment, a service that helps service members find temporary homes for their dogs while they are deployed.
Gunnar is in the running for an annual Hero Dog award from the American Humane Association. He has been nominated in the “Emerging Hero” category.
Through Gunnar, “we are creating awareness that there are other options besides suicide,” Sullivan said.
The local community can help Gunnar win the Emerging Hero award by voting for him at www.herodogawards.org/contestants/?nominee=94685415.
All photos/courtesy Amanda Sullivan
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