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Service dogs give veterans a new leash on life

Bear, service dog, shakes the hand of Travis Johanson, U.S. Navy veteran, prior to the start of their 4 Paws 2 Freedom program graduation March 22, 2019 at Beale Air Force Base, California. 4 Paws 2 Freedom, a non-profit organization, conducts a six-month program to help train certified services dogs for military veterans, first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder and victims of abuse. It began at Beale for the first time in 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes)
August 11, 2019

Before he adopted Beau, John Galambos remembers life feeling a little empty.

Since his return home from Vietnam, the Marine Corps veteran has experienced his fair share of struggles. He was diagnosed with PTSD. He has gone blind in one eye, developed diabetes and had to have a kidney removed — all results of his exposure to Agent Orange during the war.

Galambos served in the 3 Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, known now as the Darkhorse infantry battalion.

“I was the radio man who called in the air strikes. I saw a lot — did a lot,” he said.

Coping with what he had seen and done in Vietnam and the lasting effects it’s had on him emotionally and physically was not easy for the Griffith veteran.

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That all changed three years ago when Galambos adopted his mini four-legged partner, Beau, from a Florida rescue shelter.

“He’s my best friend. I rescued Beau, but he’s the one who has really rescued me,” Galambos said while holding his service dog recently inside the Cedar Lake American Legion. “When I really get upset, he can always tell. He comes by me, looks at me and does a pat until I pick him up. It’s comforting.”

Beau is a psychiatric service dog, registered with the American Kennel Club and recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Thanks to the training the 5-year-old Shih Tzu received with the Patriots Training Service Dogs Inc., Beau is proficient in obedience, performing tasks and is capable of working in distracting environments for his handler.

Along with other local veterans and canines, Galambos and Beau join Colleen Sargent, CEO and instructor of Patriots Training Service Dogs Inc., every week at the American Legion or 4PawsOnly in Munster to touch up on the service dogs’ skills.

“When I first got him, he was a nervous wreck constantly,” Galambos said of Beau. “When I brought him in for training, he wouldn’t even move. Now he’s relaxed and knows he can take it easy. He’s been socialized and trained to help me. It’s like he’s a completely different dog.”

Building the team

“Let’s start with a simple, ‘Sit, Stay!’” Sargent told a group of veterans, kicking off a recent training session at the Cedar Lake American Legion.

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The room erupted with the veterans barking commands at their dogs.

The dogs, all of whom are different sizes, ages and breeds, followed the directions. Some caught on immediately and others took time, but eventually every fluffy tail found its way to the ground in front of their handlers.

“Keep the eye contact. Oh, she’s really focused,” Sargent said, pointing to Tigris and her handler, David Billingsley, an Army veteran. “That’s a good girl!”

Sargent and her husband started Patriots Training Service Dogs Inc. three years ago. Having spent years as obedience trainers, the two wanted to create something that would use those experiences while helping local veterans.

“When you show in obedience, it’s a whole different ball game with how dogs are trained. It can be very hard,” she said. “We got thinking, if we could train a dog to go get the (toy) and bring it back, maybe we can teach these dogs to get medical bottles or do tasks specifically to help disabled veterans.”

Patriots Training Service Dogs’ customized training program is free for all veteran dog teams to participate in. The organization can help the veterans by providing service dog vest kits, leashes and collars and crates at no cost.

If a veteran doesn’t own a dog but wants to participate in the program, Sargent and her team will purchase a K9 from a rescue or shelter for veteran in need.

“We just got one adopted for a female veteran. She’ll be bringing in the German shepherd for training Sunday,” Sargent said.

“It doesn’t matter on the size of the breed of the dog. It’s all about finding the right one to address the veteran’s needs. … Some veterans will come in and give their all to the dog because they believe the dog needs me to help them. It really provides a service in both directions for the dog and veteran. The veteran has a reason to do something rather than just sitting a home.”

Training the dogs

All dogs that are part of Patriots Training Service Dogs are registered with the American Kennel Club and participate in the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program.

There are three levels of CGC titles to achieve.

The first CGC test level is standard. Service dogs that complete this level are trained in a variety of skills including coming when called and supervised separation. Advanced CGC, the second level, focuses on harder tasks including walking on a loose leash through a larger crowd and following instructions to “leave it.” The final level, known as Urban CGC, is the most disciplined, with dogs being able to perform tasks including going up and down stairs and loading and unloading a vehicle.

So far this year, eight veteran dog teams have passed and graduated from Patriots Training Service Dogs.

“It can take roughly two years to complete the program. It really just depends on the dog,” Sargent said. “Even when they complete a level or graduate, we never stop training. It’s a continuous practice to polish them up. We work really hard for these veterans.”

Air Force veteran Tammy Mercer brings her two dogs, Storm and Zeus, to participate in training sessions each week. She said her service dogs not only help her with basic day-to-day responsibilities, they also provide her comfort.

“People don’t realize that veterans … you never get over what you see. Never. I don’t care who the veteran is. You’ve had your share of ugly. These dogs are a huge comfort factor. I think if more veterans were able to get service dogs, those suicide rates would go down,” Mercer said.

“These dogs are engaging the veteran. They force them to get up and move. You don’t just sit around and feel sorry for yourself. The dogs give you something that you are responsible for.”

To learn more about Patriots Training Service Dogs or to get involved, visit facebook.com/patriotstrainingservicedog or call 219-819-1295.

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© 2019 The Times