Life of a service dog: Veteran pre-placement training

Veterans Moving Forward provides veterans with therapy and service dogs. Among the puppies they are raising to help veterans cope with various injuries is an assistance dog in training that is near and dear to our hearts. His name is Nathan, in honor of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal.

Compass is sharing Nathan’s journey from birth, through his puppy “years” and into his final stages of training in our series “Life of a service dog.” We hope you enjoy Nathan’s story as he goes from a clumsy puppy to a focused service animal ready to serve our nation’s veterans.

Training is serious business for Nathan and handler Paul Bollea. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Training is serious business for Nathan and handler Paul Bollea. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Written by assistance dog in training Nathan with help from his human handler, Paul Bollea and Veterans Moving Forward’s Tina Tallman. Veterans Moving Forward photos courtesy of Paul Bollea, Leslee Bollea, Sherry Mathews and Kelsey Smith.

My Veterans Moving Forward training as a service dog includes many steps. It takes a progression of experiences to help me gain the skills and sensitivity I will need to support my future veteran partner. That’s why, after spending 18 months or so with a primary puppy raiser and handler, it’s important to work with advanced trainers and handlers who help fine tune my basic skills and round out other aspects of my training and socialization that are needed to partner with a veteran.

So, it came as no surprise in January that I moved to the home of my second puppy raiser and handler Paul. Though it was bittersweet for me to leave behind my first puppy raiser after so many great months together, knowing that I had “graduated” to the next level of training was such a thrill because it meant that I’m that much closer to finding my veteran partner.

You see, for some time now I’ve been a little bit envious. You may remember me speaking of my littermate in previous blogs. My sister Lori found her veteran partner last fall. Since November, Lori has been the assistance dog of Marine Corps Sgt. Kelsey Smith a combat veteran suffering from PTSD and other challenges. Lori has helped her veteran partner in his recovery and in dealing with all the day-to-day tasks that many people take for granted. My littermate is attuned to her veteran’s needs at work, at home and now in public too – Lori’s veteran was not comfortable in public before Lori joined him. Now, that I have moved on to advanced training, I’m going to be meeting veteran candidates too.

But before I meet my future partner, there’s still work to be done. My new handler is making sure I’m ready to deal with all of the things you humans take for granted such as going to the post office and grocery store, attending church services and many other public events. He really knows a lot about dogs because he has trained many puppies for blind humans, and he is very, very picky. He knows that I have seen plenty of office buildings and airplanes and fancy places, so now he’s showing me more of the places where I might go and doing more of the things that I might do with my veteran partner. Though my handler has taken me to the Pentagon, the Government Accountability Office and a winery, most of our days together have been spent learning new everyday routines.

Quiet time in the Pentagon chapel. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Quiet time in the Pentagon chapel. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

One new routine I love is a daily mile and a half family walk with my human’s dog, Davis. We see other dogs in the neighborhood, squirrels, children and all sorts of things. My human reminds me not to sniff, not to pull, and to always “let’s go.” He is so happy when I follow his commands-which are most of the time. Plus, I’ve gotten into great shape with all the regular exercise.

On Sundays I attend mass – I usually fall asleep during the homily, but the pastor doesn’t mind – and we make our weekly trip to Wegmans grocery store – my nose’s favorite. I stay close to my handler as people ask to pet me and my handler tells them about Veterans Moving Forward and how I am in training to become a veteran’s assistance dog.

During the week, my human takes me to a bunch of normal places. And, because he is retired, my human has time to pack a lot of on-the-go training and hands-on lessons into each outing. It’s a lot harder than going to work in an office, but I know this intensive training is making me a better assistance dog for a veteran. Plus, it makes me more confident every day.

There are many other new places I’ve visited in recent weeks. And, some of the things I’ve learned really tug at my heart. You see, every week I accompany my handler to his cancer infusion treatment, some humans call it “chemo.” I stand by while my handler is hooked up to all kinds of tubes and machines. There are many others like him there. The patients look for me each week. I let them pet me and, hopefully, make their days a little bit brighter. I have also been to the oncologist – cancer doctor, nephrologist – kidney doctor, cancer support group meetings, the dentist, the orthodontist and a place where my handler has to get poked with needles that take his blood out and he does – you know what – to give the nurses his urine – that’s pee to you and me. I watch everything very closely to make sure my human is OK. I’ve learned a lot about doctors and nurses and medical places that I never knew before. What’s even better, the doctors and nurses and other patients always want to have me come back…I guess that means I’m doing the right thing.

My sister, assistance dog Lori, with her veteran partner Marine Corps Sgt. Kelsey Smith. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

My sister, assistance dog Lori, with her veteran partner Marine Corps Sgt. Kelsey Smith. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

The humans in my Veterans Moving Forward family believe that any veteran who might need me will be seeing the doctor or going to support groups more often than the average human. My handler says I know when a human is not well and needs me by his or her side. He says my sensitivity and the comfort I provide will be very important to my future veteran partner.

Sometimes we go to an outside dog trainer where I show off what I have learned. It’s like a “test.” But other times I attend “official” training classes held by Veterans Moving Forward. It’s at these sessions that I get to work with all the other service dogs in training – even those silly new puppies.

More importantly, it’s also where I’ve gotten to meet veterans from each of the military services. These men and women all need a service dog. Right now I am getting to know a veteran whom I really like a lot. He is a very tall Army combat veteran. Because they say he is recovering from both “physical and mental wounds of war,” I think he needs a partner just like me.

Can’t wait to see what the future holds in store. I know my namesake, Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan “Nate” Bruckenthal, is proud of how far I’ve come. I hope to show the Bruckenthal family, my handler and trainer families, my canine family, my Veterans Moving Forward family and my Coast Guard family the many things I can do to help a veteran move forward with his life.

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