For local war veteran, dog provides help and healing

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In anxious moments, Gabriel will push up against Vince Vanata’s leg to remind him that he’s there. If Vanata is in the middle of a disturbing dream, the golden retriever will help wake him up.

“A lot of folks might look upon those as small things, but realistically, for a lot of veterans, it’s situations like that — when the dog disrupts a situation, let’s them know that they are there — it’s priceless,” says Vanata, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “No drug or no person can satisfy that immediate need.”

The Cody resident served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 22 years, wrapping up his career with a 2003 tour of duty in Iraq.

A year ago, Vanata received Gabriel from Northwest Battle Buddies, a Battle Ground, Washington-based non-profit that trains service dogs and gives them to combat veterans who have PTSD.

The two become a closely knit team that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Unlike pets, service dogs like Gabriel do not stay at home when their handler’s on vacation. Where their handler goes, so goes the canine.

“You have to rethink your life,” explains Shannon Walker, the president and founder of Northwest Battle Buddies. “These guys don’t have a dog because they think it’s a novelty, or they think it’s going to be neat.”

Walker is the daughter of Powell resident Jo Walker and a professional dog trainer by trade. She stresses that, unlike some other “service” animals sometimes seen in public, a dog that Northwest Battle Buddies trains is “not a therapy dog, not a dog that’s had three weeks of training and is wearing a vest.”

Not just any dog

Getting a dog ready to serve a veteran involves 350 hours of training with Northwest Battle Buddies. That’s about five months of instruction with Walker and other trainers and another two months with both the trainers and the veteran. Then there’s continuing re-certification.

Walker says that extensive training is essential, noting the animals are given almost unlimited access to public facilities ranging from restaurants to doctor’s offices.

“There is no higher privilege for a dog other than service dog work like this,” she said. “So it is a small percentage of dogs that can handle this.”

Walker started the organization about four years ago and they’ve provided dogs to 32 veterans; some of the canines have come from shelters, others like Gabriel are donated by breeders.

Walker looks for a specific set of characteristics. Dogs must be less than 2 years old, healthy, very social, guide-able and the kind of dog that can fit in everyday situations. (A massive Great Dane, for example, wouldn’t be very convenient to take into the grocery store.)

Northwest Battle Buddies’ trainees generally weigh between 45 and 85 pounds and they’re lower-maintenance breeds, Walker said. They’ve included golden retrievers, Lab mixes, red heeler mixes and the occasional German shepherd or pit bull.

When Walker finds a dog with the right characteristics, it will be raised in a home until it’s roughly a year old.

“That way the dogs get to just be dogs,” Walker said.

But while they’re treated like normal dogs, the person raising them also teaches a specific structure aimed at preparing the animals for their future job.

For example, one of the hard, fast rules is that the dogs are never fed by hand. All their food comes from their bowl.

The point is to keep the animals from scrounging for tidbits in the restaurants and other public places they’ll visit with their owners.

“We want that part of the brain closed off. If the dog never receives food that way — from the table, from the hand — they never look for it,” Walker said.

She recounted a pile of french fries falling to the floor in front of a black Lab she’d trained; to the shock of bystanders, the dog didn’t eat a single one.

A big chunk of Northwest Battle Buddies’ training is getting the dogs comfortable with the various situations they may experience with their handler: escalators, malls, airports, concerts and other unusual places for a dog.

“We get them exposed to everything we can possibly think of out in life,” Walker said, then “we do it all with the handler again.”

Gabriel has been trained to effectively be “invisible” in public — Vanata describes how the dog surprised staff at a Powell restaurant by sitting quietly under the table during an entire meal — but a service dog still brings a lot of questions from curious onlookers.

“When you walk, whether it’s one dog at a time or eight dogs, you are a parade all by yourself,” Walker said. However, the upside is that it forces disabled veterans to engage with those people rather than withdrawing from others, Walker said. Plus, “it’s about their beloved service dog, which they are so proud of,” she said

‘A life changer’

Vanata said he fields a lot of questions about Gabriel and what he does.

“(At) the beginning, it was kind of bothersome,” Vanata said, but he’s come to see the interest as teachable moments; he can explain why people shouldn’t pet Gabriel when the dog is wearing its vest and he can hope those people will pass that information on to others.

The vest means Gabriel is working — though he’s been trained to continue to be obedient even when it’s off.

“At home, he can be a pet,” Vanata said. “But at his inner core, he knows that he is a dog with a purpose, and he knows what his job is.”

Much of that job is knowing and understanding his handler.

“He learned to recognize me as a person and what the norm is and what is not the norm,” Vanata said. “I guess you could say we became intuitively in touch.”

Gabriel snoozed and laid patiently in the grass while a Tribune reporter recently interviewed his handler; however, Vanata says that if the interview had become unexpectedly heated, Gabriel would immediately have gotten up and come to him.

Gabriel’s job is not to physically protect his handler, however. In fact, the service dogs are specifically trained to not respond with aggression. That makes it the handler’s job to protect their companion from harm, such as more aggressive dogs.

“The dog has so much trust in the handler that, ‘if I follow you, it will always be OK,’” Walker explained.

Vanata takes that charge seriously.

“I look at it as, I have an obligation, because that dog was gifted to me,” he said, noting all the time that’s been put into Gabriel’s training.

Walker started Northwest Battle Buddies as a way to thank America’s veterans for protecting the country’s freedoms.

“We want to say thank you — not just with our words — but we want to say thank you by providing something that can be totally life changing,” she said.

Vanata said Gabriel has allowed him to deal with situations and people in ways he wouldn’t have been able to before; many veterans, he said, come to see the animals as “a replacement for medication.”

While medication can be something of a Band-Aid, he said the bond provided by a service dog promotes actual healing through a sense of responsibility and ownership.

“He’s been a life changer,” Vanata said of Gabriel. “Definitely, he’s been a life changer.”

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