By Kathy Salzberg
As professional groomers and certified (or certifiable!) dog lovers, we are all aware of the beauty, adaptability, and smarts of the Golden Retriever. We’ve seen them in action as service dogs for the physically disabled, guide dogs for the blind, comfort dogs for the traumatized in times of national disasters, therapy dogs for the sick, and reading dogs for children with learning difficulties. These living rays of sunshine are proving themselves once again in a new arena: psychiatric service dogs for veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injury.
PTSD, once called shell shock or battle fatigue, is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which physical harm or witnessing the death of others has occurred. It is a lasting consequence of such ordeals, causing intense fear, helplessness, or horror, often occurring in veterans after they have returned home from war. Most people who experience a traumatic event will have reactions that may include shock, anger, nervousness, fear, and even guilt. For a person afflicted with PTSD, however, these feelings continue and even increase, becoming so strong that they prevent the person from living a normal life, often causing them to no longer want to live at all.
Patriot Rovers founder David R. Cantara created an organization to help war veterans afflicted with this disorder and other brain injuries. A North Carolina-based 501(c)(3) non-profit, it provides canine therapy using rescued and trained Golden Retrievers, each dog named after a soldier who has died in combat, providing healing to those that have returned from war and a living memorial to the heroes who have given their lives in service to our country. The program is free for veterans.
An Army vet himself, David’s own dogs always helped him cope with losses in his life, helping to steer him to a career as a Canine Behavioral Expert and Master Dog Trainer. Growing up, he lost a teenage cousin with severe medical problems to suicide, and his father, a military man who had worked for the Department of Defense, died of cancer shortly after he retired. David and his wife Pam also lost their firstborn daughter in infancy. Their surviving child, Maggie, was gravely ill with necrotizing enterocolitis as a baby and was given a less than 10% chance to live. Miraculously, she survived six major surgeries and is now a healthy 13-year-old. He credits the unconditional love and support provided by his dogs as immensely important in helping him deal with these events.
Along the way, he founded Carolina Air Canine LLC, a grooming, boarding, daycare, and training facility in High Point, NC. It also includes the Bark & Fly Ranch, a dog sports park where pets and their owners enjoy activities such as flyball, Frisbee and agility training. Before he and wife, a professional groomer, built their facility, David and his dogs earned six state and regional Canine Disc championships, appearing at sporting events and halftime shows all over the country. He also did Canada Geese control in open spaces and in-home obedience training.
After attending some 200 funerals of fallen soldiers as a member and Ride Captain of the Patriot Guards, an organization that attends the funerals of veterans to shield grieving families from protestors, David became aware that a vast number of these veterans had taken their own lives after returning home. Statistics indicate that 22 soldiers commit suicide every day because of their invisible wounds. That’s one every 65 minutes.
“It is distressing to be at the gravesides with families when they are suffering the loss of a child in a combat fatality,” he says, “but it’s twice as disturbing when these kids made it back and are suffering from PTSD issues, ultimately dying of overdoses, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, or by other means. This was not acceptable to me.”
Combining his compassion for his fellow veterans, his love for dogs, and knowledge of canine behavior and training, he used most of his savings and maxed out his credit cards to create Patriot Rovers, a non-profit organization that helps heal vets, saves unwanted dogs, and brings comfort to families of the fallen by having a service dog named after their loved one who made the ultimate sacrifice. “We are basically providing a living memorial for their son or daughter so their stories can be told and their memories kept alive,” said David. “It is a healing mission for the dogs and the soldiers but also for the fallen soldiers’ families.”
The dogs, mostly Goldens but some Golden/Lab mixes, are obtained from shelters that notify David when they are brought in and from pet owners who have unwanted litters or are coping with circumstances where they must surrender the pups. “One breeder had 13 puppies,” he told me. “The mother dog had a tear in her uterus and died.” The ratio between adult dogs and puppies is about 60:40.
Adult dogs from the shelters arrive in varying degrees of condition. That’s where Pam comes in, grooming the dogs and helping to restore their Golden good looks. She and David often need to nurse them back to health, as well. I recently met one, a handsome Golden named “Nick” (named for Corporal Nicholas G. Xiarhos, USMC, of Yarmouth, MA, who died in Afghanistan on July 23, 2009). His father, Deputy Chief Steven G. Xiarhos of the Yarmouth Police Department, organizes “Big Nick’s Ride for the Fallen” every year to raise money for veterans’ causes and honor his son’s memory, this year bringing out 1,000 motorcyclists and including a trolley car for the 13 Gold Star families here on Cape Cod. David was on hand with his family to speak about Patriot Rovers, bringing “Nick” along to meet his new partner, Curtis Frye, a Falmouth resident who will soon become the third Cape Cod veteran with a Patriot Rover dog by his side to help him heal.
“When we got Nick, he was emaciated,” David said. “He was being fed about once a week, and he couldn’t handle more than a handful of food at a time. He had Giardia and heartworm. It took us six months to get him healthy.”
All dogs begin with general training including certification as either AKC Star Puppy or AKC Canine Good Citizenship (CGC). At the on-site training school, dubbed “Rover Academy,” the professional staff has over 35 years experience in canine behavioral training. They teach prospective Rovers to do a variety of obedience and service dog tasks. During the final week, their new owners are brought in to complete their joint training together. (David foots the bill for their stay at nearby hotels.) In this phase, the soldiers bond with their service dogs and learn about dog care and animal behavior. Classes are held on-site in the hotel meeting rooms and in public settings such as stores and restaurants.
Training these teams consists of classroom, hands-on application, and homework. The soldiers must complete the course and keep up with their assignments to earn their certificate and receive their dog. Training of the dogs is first performed on a basic level and then moves toward customized training focused on socialization and performance of specific tasks, depending upon each soldier’s individual needs. This is vital in order to make sure the dog is fit and ready to perform all requirements of a service dog under the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Tasks include tactile stimulation, alerting, interrupting, stabilizing, calming, waking, initiating activity, interpersonal interaction, and the creation of personal space by forming a living barrier between their owner and people who approach too closely. The dogs provide a constant reassuring presence, unconditional love, and companionship while occupying the mind of the soldier, helping their human partner to focus on something other than depression or reliving traumatic events experienced during deployment. In their role, the dogs address the issue of suicide prevention and reintegration into daily functioning for the vet. Nearly 400 hours is invested in each dog and soldier. To date, they have graduated 55 such service dogs. It costs about $10,000 to train each four-footed hero. David and his wife find homes as pets for those dogs that do not make the grade as service dogs. Vets who want one of these dogs can fill out an application on his website, www.patriotrovers.org.
On graduation day, a Gold Star parent vests the dog with its Service Dog vest. Families and veterans come together to celebrate this living memorial that will carry out their hero’s mission of helping a fellow soldier, and the ceremony is recorded on a CD for their use. Lifetime support, opportunities for further training, quarterly camaraderie-building get-togethers for vets and their dogs, and volunteer service are also integral components of the program.
Golden Retrievers are David’s breed of choice for this work because of their calm nature, trainability, and physical strength. (He used to own one named “Daisy Dukes.”) In addition, these dogs have been proven to be highly susceptible to the bio waves or vibrations that emanate from a person, picking up on anxiety buildup and thus forewarning a panic attack. In such circumstances, they will place their paws on the soldier’s chest and help him or her to slow down their breathing and redirect their focus. (Both are taught this in their training.) As these dogs support their owners, they do everything from alleviating anxiety with a gentle nudge to interrupting nightmares, turning on lights, and searching the house for intruders. On its vest, each dog wears a sign that says “ask to pet me,” providing a way for withdrawn veterans to interact with people.
Once placed with their owner, each dog receives a year’s supply of dog food and Trifexis, a once-monthly tablet that kills fleas, prevents heartworm disease, and controls adult hookworm, roundworm, and whipworm infections. All their vaccinations are up to date when they leave, but when they need renewing, David covers that bill as well.
On Cape Cod where I live, Patriot Rovers has some avid supporters. Cyndy and Ken Jones of Mashpee lost their son and only child, helicopter pilot Marine Captain Eric A. Jones, in Afghanistan in 2009 and founded Heroes in Transition (www.heroesintransition.org) to assuage their grief and complete Eric’s mission to serve his fellow troops. Their non-profit organization provides home modifications for disabled veterans, support for military families of the deployed, transportation to take vets to medical appointments, and PTSD support group therapy. They lend financial support to Patriot Rovers, as well, hosting annual galas on Cape Cod and in New York City to raise money for their work. They sponsored a service dog named for their son’s radio call name, Jethro, who was placed with U.S. Army vet Christopher Cahill of Bourne, and another dog named Tracy is with Marine Lance Corporal Adam Babiarz of Sandwich. “Nick,” their third sponsored dog, is now completing his training, named for Steve Xiarhos’ son Marine Cpl. Nicholas G. Xiarhos. This dog will soon graduate with his new owner, Falmouth resident and Army veteran Curtis Frye.
“To take a puppy, save its life, train it, love it, and teach it to help keep alive a vet who made it home in the name of one who did not make it – it’s full circle,” said Steve Xiarhos.
“We are very happy to be working with David,” added Cyndy Jones. “His heart is in the right place.” I suspect it might be made of gold like those four-footed angels he shares with those who have given so much for the rest of us.
Note: Patriot Rovers is supported entirely by donations with 91% of its revenue going directly back into the program and only 9% going toward administrative and development costs. To find out how you can help, go to http://patriotrovers.org/donate.