On May 3, 2012, readers of Coast Guard Compass, the official blog of the U.S. Coast Guard, were greeted with a post that opened with: “Remember the East Coast’s ‘snowpocalypse’ in January 2011? Well, I was born, along with my brother and two sisters, in the wake of that storm.”
Thus began the first installment of “Life of a Service Dog,” a series of engaging “first-person” blog posts recounting the early experiences of Nathan, an English golden retriever. Initially called “puppy-puppy,” he soon received his lasting name in acknowledgment of him becoming a truly select “man’s best friend” – a service dog. Even the name was special, in honor of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan “Nate” Brandt Bruckenthal, the first member of the Coast Guard to be killed in action since the Vietnam War.
Service Dogs for Veterans
The primary raising of service dogs is conducted by volunteers. In Nathan’s case, it was Cyndi Perry, who had 14 years experience raising and training service dogs for other organizations when she was approached by Veterans Moving Forward (VMF) to raise him (Perry also sits on VMF’s board of directors). VMF is a not-for-profit organization that operates a national program specifically designed to provide veterans with skilled therapy and service dogs. The need is acute. Presently, more than 50,000 veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered physical wounds and more than 500,000 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and/or depression. Yet in 2009, only eight veterans received financial support from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for service dogs. This disparity led two friends, Karen Jeffries and Bob Larson, to found VMF on June 1, 2010. Jeffries, herself a service-disabled veteran, was a U.S. Navy commander with 24 years of service, and Larson is an entrepreneur who managed the construction of an outpatient clinic for the VA.
The mission statement of VMF is to “be the premier national not-for-profit organization for veterans seeking and receiving assistance/service or skilled companion dogs at no cost to the veterans; be the most effective and trusted resource to provide canine therapy for veterans; optimize veterans’ employment in distributing service dogs to veterans to meet growing demands; make a meaningful difference in the lives of our veterans; and increase their safety and independence within their environment.”
To train its dogs, VMF works with Pet Partners® (formerly Delta Society), an organization dedicated to the training and evaluating of animals for use in treating people suffering physical, emotional, and psychological trauma. A dog accepted into the program is called an assistance dog in training (ADIT) and has to pass the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen® examination as well as regularly scheduled skills evaluations by Pet Partners. VMF conducted its first Comfort Dog Team visits Oct. 24, 2010, with an event at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in partnership with Marine Families Purple Heart Family Support. On Nov. 5, 2010, VMF registered “Josh,” its first VMF-owned ADIT, named in memory of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Davis, a Marine killed in action in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in May 2010. All VMF service dogs are named after servicemen and women who have been killed in action.
The training of an ADIT is rigorous. It begins at age 8 weeks and, depending on the development and personality of the dog, generally concludes around age 18 months. Only puppies from vetted breeders with a high-quality track record are accepted as candidates. At 8 weeks, the puppy is transferred to a foster puppy-raiser family that will be responsible for its care and training. There are four stages in the training. In the first stage (age 2 to 6 months), the ADIT receives basic dog obedience training. VMF staff members make regularly scheduled visits to the puppy-raiser home to ensure the ADIT is well cared for and to monitor progress. In the second stage (6 to 12 months), the puppy-raiser family increases the skill level of the basic dog obedience training regimens in order to prepare the ADIT for the AKC Canine Good Citizen examination and Pet Partners evaluation that takes place at age 12 months. Upon successful completion of the examination and evaluation, third-stage training (12 to 15 months) begins. At this stage, the ADIT may be considered a VMF Comfort Dog and, in addition to increased skill-level training, the ADIT is evaluated for animal-assisted activities or therapy through Pet Partners. Also, third-party professional dog trainers assess, evaluate, and identify the ADIT for specific and additional behavioral training. In fourth-stage training (15 to 18 months), the ADIT, now fully vetted and qualified as a comfort/therapy dog, is given specialized advanced training and screened for potential placement to a veteran on VMF’s application list. VMF unites the applicant and ADIT and pays all expenses for final, customized training at one of several specialized facilities.
Perry said, “You really need a steady dog to be a good service dog. …”
Handlers like Perry have a big responsibility because training is very demanding and does not take any break. It involves around-the-clock contact that also means employers have to agree to allow the dog to be in the workplace. In Perry’s case, that meant Nathan accompanied her as she performed her duties for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
As his blogs recount, Nathan was exposed to a wide variety of urban noises and experiences including sirens, horn honking, light and heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic, walking surfaces including grates, and enclosed spaces – home, car, elevator, store, and office. Training also included a special train trip.
A Coast Guardsman Remembered
Nathan’s namesake, Nathan “Nate” B. Bruckenthal, was born July 17, 1979, in Stony Brook on New York’s Long Island. He enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1999. Following service on the CGC Point Wells (CGC Ridley is the replacement for the Point Wells, which was decommissioned on Oct. 13, 2000), based out of Montauk, N.Y., Bruckenthal entered the Coast Guard’s Damage Controlman “A” School, which provides training in a variety of skills, including firefighting, plumbing, welding, carpentry, and other trades. Upon graduation, he was sent to Station Neah Bay, Wash. Bruckenthal was then sent to the other corner of the nation, to Tactical Law Enforcement Team (TACLET) South at Coast Guard Air Station Miami, Fla. He served two tours of duty in the Persian Gulf, both aboard the USS Firebolt (Coast Guard TACLETs may be assigned to U.S. Navy vessels), a Cyclone-class coastal patrol boat. Bruckenthal was interviewed about his experiences during his first tour of duty for the Coast Guard Historian’s Office Oral History Program.