Life of a service dog: Finding my veteran partner

Veterans Moving Forward provides veterans with therapy and service dogs. Among the dogs they are raising to help veterans cope with various injuries has been an assistance dog in training that is near and dear to our hearts. His name is Nathan, in memory of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal. On August 4, Veterans Moving Forward announced service dog Nathan’s permanent placement with a veteran.

Compass has shared Nathan’s journey from birth, through his puppy “years” and his final stages of training in our series “Life of a Service Dog.” This young golden retriever has grown from a clumsy puppy to a focused service animal ready to serve our nation’s veterans. We hope you enjoy this final edition of Nathan’s story.

Nathan keeps a close eye on his veteran partner. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Nathan keeps a close eye on his veteran partner. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Written by Service Dog Nathan with help from his veteran partner, Sgt. John Williams and Veterans Moving Forward’s Tina Tallman. Veterans Moving Forward photos by Michele Khol, Sherry Mathews, Cyndi Perry and John Williams.

It’s true! It’s finally happened! I am now a full-fledged service dog with a veteran partner of my own! There’s so much to tell. Where to begin? It’s so exciting! (If you were here with me right now you’d probably be commanding me to “settle” or “sit.”)

One of Nathan’s first walks with his future veteran partner. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

One of Nathan’s first walks with his future veteran partner. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Better go back to the beginning; the beginning of my life with U.S. Army Sgt. John Williams.

It all started at a VMF training session in February. A very tall human with a very long walking stick visits. We learn he is a veteran. He’s there to meet and work with the older assistance dogs in training. This isn’t unusual for training day. I’ve met several veterans this way before. They’re trying to find a service dog who will be the right match. This time I try very hard to make a good impression. My raiser and handler Paul introduces me right away and lets the man take my leash and lead me through some exercises. But later, the veteran works with the other dogs too. So, I don’t really know whether I’ll see this veteran again or not.

You can’t imagine how happy I am when my handler takes me to a new spot in late February: Reston Town Center in Reston, Va. There we meet VMF’s assistance dog in training coordinator Michele Khol (the top dog lady) and the tall veteran – Sgt. John. I soon realize this is a “working” class and there will be many more to come.

Those first few times I meet Sgt. John, we worked mainly on learning how to walk together, how he should hold my leash or where I should stand so I don’t make him trip. The veteran learns how to give me basic commands – which I already knew, of course – and I get to know this tall human a little better.

Soon I make a visit to Sgt. John’s house. It’s was time for me to meet everybody there and see how we’ll get along. It is a lively place; this veteran already has a family dog, a mother human, three little humans and lots of toys. Could there possibly be room for me?

The first time I get to stay at Sgt. John’s house is early March. We work hard together attending classes at All About Dogs. VMF’s dog lady meets us at the library for more lessons. I go with my veteran to lots of doctor’s appointments and meetings. At home I play tug of war with the funny littlest human.

Nathan and Sgt. John Williams at an outdoor training session in April. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Nathan and Sgt. John Williams at an outdoor training session in April. Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward.

Living with my veteran, I begin to see why he needs me so much. Three days after I arrive it happens. The humans call them “flashbacks.” I know that I must act when I sense my veteran beginning to drift away. First, I pull his pants leg. If that doesn’t work, I pop up on his leg and start licking him. If he’s standing I have to pull on his leg, bump my head on his leg or pull at my leash. I do whatever it takes to bring him back to me.

Sometimes at night my veteran has nightmares. When this happens I lick his face until he wakes up, of course. I also notice that he doesn’t like to go outside or to public places. But now, with me he has to go outside. We walk. We play. And, eventually we begin to visit public places with more and more people, more and more often. When I see my veteran becoming tense (anxiety attack), I pull my leash to get him to take me outside or to a place where I know he’ll feel safer. You see, the safer he feels the more things my veteran will be able to do.

Because there’s always more to learn, we keep training with Veterans Moving Forward. Now our learning is focused on skills I need to know specifically for Sgt. John. We practice things that will help with his unique physical and mental health challenges. For instance, I “get” things that my veteran tells me to, and “touch” buttons or knobs that he needs me to. Most importantly, I’m learning to “speak” so that I can get help in case of emergency. (I won’t leave my veteran’s side.) After that I’ll learn some more.

I know my help is making a difference in my veteran’s life. In July we went to a Nationals game in Washington, D.C. In August we met with members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. My veteran walks further now and limps less. Most importantly, he knows I won’t let him down – because I’m his partner.

Dedicated to the memory of Damage Controlman 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal, U.S. Coast Guard, 1979-2004.

Service dog in training Nathan visits Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.

Service dog in training Nathan visits Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.

Comments

comments

Tags: , , ,