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Learning New Commands

Local veterans learn to train their own service animals

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Squirt is impatient. The young dachshund wriggles in his owner's arms as she gets out of the car and slowly crosses the parking lot of the Eureka Elk's Lodge. Waiting for the pair in the breezeway are a line of chairs and a group of people from both the Elk's club and the Eureka Veteran's Affairs Clinic. The two organizations have collaborated to offer a free training course for local veterans so their dogs can become certified companion animals.

Crystal Ray, Squirt's owner, has her doubts. Ray is attending the class on behalf of her husband, Randolph, a retired Army sergeant who is partially bed-ridden. Ray winces a little as Squirt strains at the leash, smelling the beef heart local dog trainer Delilah Huck uses for obedience exercises.

"Oh, he's cute!" says Kelly Stephens, the member services coordinator for the VA Clinic. Her husband, Casey, is the Vets Committee chair for the Elk's Lodge.

"We can't get no sit or stay or nothing out of him," replies Ray, who is slightly out of breath. The group laughs. Squirt, she says, is a big comfort to Randolph. She hopes to teach her husband some of what she learns at the class. Squirt is joined by his classmate Calvin, an 18-month-old mystery breed that his owner, Army Sgt. Angela Rich, believes is half pitbull and half lab. Calvin is well-mannered and curious, eager to please. He seems a little intimidated by Squirt, who is now growling from Ray's lap. Squirt turns up the volume when the final attendee of the class, Nicolai, a 15-month-old Black Russian terrier, arrives. Nikki, as his owners Jack and Pam Jones call him, is simply massive, a doofy bear of an animal whose shoulders almost reach those of Jack Jones in his wheelchair. He was chosen specifically as a service dog for Jones, a Vietnam War veteran and Marine sergeant who founded the local Vet's Center. Once trained, Nikki will be able to help his owner get up from the chair. Today, however, the young dog is just curious about the treats and other dogs, dancing a bit on his leash as Pam Jones tries to keep him away from Squirt, who is now lunging as Ray shushes him.

Huck calls the class to order a little after 6 p.m., instructing the owners to fill their pockets with pieces of beef heart. The treats were donated by Kelly Stephens and Deborah Reeves, who is a licensed clinical social worker at the Vet's Center. Reeves, sitting nearby, will be in attendance for the entire six-week class to assist veterans with any emotional issues that come up during the training. Stephens says removing the financial barriers to the training was key in helping local veterans attend the class. The Elks National Foundation paid for Huck's services and the dogs' necessary vaccinations. Once the veterans and their dogs complete the course, some will be eligible to enroll in formal training at Bergin University of Canine Studies, a service dog academy in Santa Rosa. The VA Clinic and the Elks plan to launch a sponsorship program to finance academy attendees, depending on how many qualify.

Today, however, the first order of business is learning how to sit.

Huck explains the basics. Begin with the pooch already sitting. Say the command, but just once so as not to confuse him or her. Hold the treat to your chest. Once the dog is paying attention and staying in place, it gets the treat, with the words, "Good sit."

"If the dog's butt comes up, the food goes away," says Huck, a McKinleyville-based instructor who has been teaching obedience classes for 30 years.

While Jack Jones watches from his wheelchair, Pam holds Nikki's leash. The big dog already knows some commands but not the traditional sit and stay. Rather, the Joneses use military terms such as "at ease," "stand down" and "crouch."

"At ease," says Pam Jones. Nikki obediently plops his butt on the concrete and receives a treat.

Huck walks the dog and owners through a few more simple exercises then moves on to Calvin, who has been watching curiously from the sidelines. He, too, responds well to the technique, staying in place as Rich moves from side to side with the treat. Everyone applauds, which makes the dogs bark.

Stephens says she hopes to have more dogs and veterans in the next class. At some point, her husband, an Afghanistan war veteran, will be joining the group with his young German rottweiler, Bastogne. Stephens herself was stationed in San Diego for much of the war, working in the amphibious assault division. Her eyes well up a little bit as she describes the positive impact service animals can have on veterans with physical and emotional wounds from combat.

"My husband has PTSD, he had an IED blow up on him," she says. "He gets so much support from his dog. It really helps."

Once trained, Bastogne, named after a famous World War II siege, will help Casey Stephens with his anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as helping lift him if he falls due to his knee injury. The couple also has a "very smart" red Queensland heeler, Bandit. Stephens says workers at the clinic are currently seeing a surge in young veterans from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and struggling to use available services.

"Social impairment is a huge one for our vets that are coming back right now," Stephens says.

Stephens and her colleagues want to help fill in some of the gaps to help veterans live full lives. A properly trained service dog may mean better companionship, better help, better access to housing and the ability to take an emotional or physical service animal into offices, restaurants and planes.

Finally, it's Squirt's turn. Huck places a chair in front of Ray so the small dog can stay there without strain on his owner's back. Squirt, smelling the food, is excited.

"Get his attention," Huck says. Ray tells him to sit, holding a piece of the beef heart to her chest. When Squirt's bottom is on the chair, he gets the treat. The pair repeat the ritual several times, although both Ray and Squirt become impatient.

"He's trying really hard for you," says Huck.

"I've been trying really hard, too," says Ray. "I've been working with him."

At the end of the session, the dachshund is sitting like a pro, looking up at Ray with big limpid eyes as she praises him with a "good sit." Calvin and Nikki are standing by, wondering when it will be their turn to again be praised and rewarded. Across the parking lot, a border collie sitting in the cab of a pickup truck barks in frustration. In future classes, the veterans and their companions will move on to more complex commands, learning to lie down, walk on a loose lead, greet without jumping and go to their beds. Properly trained, service dogs can help their owners know when it's safe to cross a street, predict seizures and assist people onto mobility devices. That's all in the future for these dogs and their veterans, however. Tonight, everyone applauds Squirt.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

Correction: This story was updated to correct some information. It originally referred to the dogs' continuing education at Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa when the correct school is the Bergin University of Canine Studies. We also listed Deborah Reeves place of employment the Eureka Veteran's Affairs Clinic, when she works for the Eureka Vet's Center. The Journal regrets the errors.

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