DVMs assist program that provides service dogs for combat veterans

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Princeton, Mass. – A large number of New England veterinarians are actively supporting a new program through which service dogs are trained specifically to assist disabled combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

PRINCETON, MASS. – A large number of New England veterinarians are actively supporting a new program through which service dogs are trained specifically to assist disabled combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Partners: The nation's first "Canine for Combat Veterans" team, Army Staff Sgt. Roland Paquette 27, of Rio Rando, N.M., and service dog Rainbow, with Sheila O'Brien, executive director of National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), the group that trains and matches dogs with veterans.

A Princeton, Mass., organization called National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), which has trained and provided service dogs for the deaf and disabled for 30 years, launched the new program, "Canines for Combat Veterans," last fall, working with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to interview wounded veterans and select appropriate candidates.

Three Massachusetts DVMs are on NEADS' 15-member board of directors and regularly donate time and services to the cause. They are Ira Kaplan, a practitioner in Billerica, Mass.; his wife, Anita Migday, a DVM in Framingham, Mass; and Dennis Ovitsky of West Boyleton, Mass., a semi-retired practitioner who works as a relief DVM in area animal hospitals and serves as NEADS' veterinary liaison.

Another key DVM player is Dr. Michael McTigue, of Gardner, Mass., who donates his services once a month, providing immunizations and other medical care for puppies selected to begin training as service dogs for combat veterans.

Ovitsky said he was so moved after attending a "graduation" ceremony last month, at which an Army National Guard veteran from Wisconsin who lost a leg in Afghanistan was partnered with a service dog, "I wanted to share the story of this great program with our veterinary community."

Dr. Dennis Ovitsky

The Wisconsin soldier, Spec. Raymond Hubbard, is only the second veteran so far to receive a "walker/balance" dog – one that is trained to provide balance while the veteran is ambulatory and walking with a prosthetic, going up and down stairs and rising from a sitting or fallen position; and to act as a service dog when the veteran takes off the prosthetic and returns to a wheelchair, perhaps by picking up dropped objects, retrieving items from a distance, pulling a wheelchair a short distance, even turning lights on and off.

The first combat veteran to receive a canine assistant under the new program was Army Staff Sgt. Roland Paquette, 27, of Rio Rando, N.M., whose legs were amputated above the knee after an explosion in Afghanistan. After a two-week break-in period, he graduated with his dog last fall.

Ovitsky, who has worked with the NEADS group since 1992, says many more combat vets soon will be partnered with dogs to help them return to civilian life; the dogs become lifelong companions and helpers. "There are nearly 23,000 injured and disabled war veterans out there right now and the number is growing, so this program fills a critical need," Ovitsky says.

He explains that veterans are selected based on their medical need, and "must demonstrate a certain level of independence. That is, they must be able to take care of a dog."

Most of the dogs trained for veterans are larger breeds, Golden or Labrador Retrievers, purchased or donated from breeders nationwide, although some are rescued from animal shelters.

It takes about 18 months for a dog to become fully competent to assist veterans, Ovitsky says.

Some puppies are placed in "foster homes" for at least the first year of their training, while others are trained by volunteer inmates at prisons in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. "The inmates are able to give the dog daily attention, and that really speeds up the process. It's working very well, and the inmates enjoy it. Most express appreciation for being able to make a positive impact on these veterans' lives," Ovitsky says.

"The veterinary community, particularly in New England, is plugged into this program at many levels," Ovitsky says. "Besides those of us serving on the board, a large number of DVMs are providing free or discounted care for the puppies in foster homes and at the prisons. Also, veterinarians in the communities where the soldiers live continue to provide free or discounted care after the graduation."

Sheila O'Brien, executive director of NEADS, says the DVMs' help has been crucial to the success of "Canines for Combat Veterans."

"Ira (Kaplan) and Anita (Migday) handle all the spay/neutering and so much more for us. And Mike McTigue is here every month to make sure our puppies stay healthy," she says.

O'Brien explains that she and the NEADS directors saw a need three years ago to provide dogs for wounded war veterans, especially amputees in wheelchairs. They initiated contact with Walter Reed officials, who agreed to work with them.

"We knew this (war) would change the entire demographic of the disabled population in the United States, and it has," she says. NEADS normally asks disabled and deaf persons who receive service dogs to arrange some sort of community fund-raiser with a goal of at least $1,000 toward the approximately $9,500 total training cost.

Check-up time: Dr. Michael McTigue, owner of Gardner Animal Hospital in Gardner, MA, performs a monthly check-up on Mica, an 8-month-old Golden Retriever in training to become one of the "Canines for Combat Veterans." The animals wear blue jackets in public to designate them as service dogs.

"But for these veterans, we've waived that and are raising all the funds ourselves," O'Brien says. "They've done enough."

Ovitsky says news of the program has generated large and small donations from individuals, and attracted veterinary pharmaceutical firms as sponsors.

"One couple came in a few weeks ago and wrote a check for $1.2 million. They wanted the money to go specifically to help the veterans."

For details about NEADS and its program for veterans, visit www.neads.org.

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