PRINCETON, MASS. – A large number of New England veterinarians are actively supporting a new program through which service dogs are trained
specifically to assist disabled combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Partners: The nation's first "Canine for Combat Veterans" team, Army Staff Sgt. Roland Paquette 27, of Rio Rando, N.M., and
service dog Rainbow, with Sheila O'Brien, executive director of National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), the
group that trains and matches dogs with veterans.
A Princeton, Mass., organization called National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), which has trained and provided
service dogs for the deaf and disabled for 30 years, launched the new program, "Canines for Combat Veterans," last fall, working
with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to interview wounded veterans and select appropriate candidates.
Three Massachusetts DVMs are on NEADS' 15-member board of directors and regularly donate time and services to the cause. They
are Ira Kaplan, a practitioner in Billerica, Mass.; his wife, Anita Migday, a DVM in Framingham, Mass; and Dennis Ovitsky
of West Boyleton, Mass., a semi-retired practitioner who works as a relief DVM in area animal hospitals and serves as NEADS'
Another key DVM player is Dr. Michael McTigue, of Gardner, Mass., who donates his services once a month, providing immunizations
and other medical care for puppies selected to begin training as service dogs for combat veterans.
Ovitsky said he was so moved after attending a "graduation" ceremony last month, at which an Army National Guard veteran from
Wisconsin who lost a leg in Afghanistan was partnered with a service dog, "I wanted to share the story of this great program
with our veterinary community."
Dr. Dennis Ovitsky
The Wisconsin soldier, Spec. Raymond Hubbard, is only the second veteran so far to receive a "walker/balance" dog – one that
is trained to provide balance while the veteran is ambulatory and walking with a prosthetic, going up and down stairs and
rising from a sitting or fallen position; and to act as a service dog when the veteran takes off the prosthetic and returns
to a wheelchair, perhaps by picking up dropped objects, retrieving items from a distance, pulling a wheelchair a short distance,
even turning lights on and off.
The first combat veteran to receive a canine assistant under the new program was Army Staff Sgt. Roland Paquette, 27, of Rio
Rando, N.M., whose legs were amputated above the knee after an explosion in Afghanistan. After a two-week break-in period,
he graduated with his dog last fall.
Ovitsky, who has worked with the NEADS group since 1992, says many more combat vets soon will be partnered with dogs to help
them return to civilian life; the dogs become lifelong companions and helpers. "There are nearly 23,000 injured and disabled
war veterans out there right now and the number is growing, so this program fills a critical need," Ovitsky says.
He explains that veterans are selected based on their medical need, and "must demonstrate a certain level of independence.
That is, they must be able to take care of a dog."
Most of the dogs trained for veterans are larger breeds, Golden or Labrador Retrievers, purchased or donated from breeders
nationwide, although some are rescued from animal shelters.
It takes about 18 months for a dog to become fully competent to assist veterans, Ovitsky says.
Some puppies are placed in "foster homes" for at least the first year of their training, while others are trained by volunteer
inmates at prisons in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. "The inmates are able to give the dog daily attention,
and that really speeds up the process. It's working very well, and the inmates enjoy it. Most express appreciation for being
able to make a positive impact on these veterans' lives," Ovitsky says.