East Lyme – A 10 week old yellow Lab arrived at Lillie B. Haynes School as a puppy Friday morning and left with a new identity.
The 460 pupils from kindergarten through fourth grade had a unique opportunity: to name the furry bundle of energy that will become the therapy dog for a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder or mobility problems over the next year and a half.
They called him Sunny.
Naming rights came after students raised $ 3,000 through their annual Veterans Day Walkathon for Forever in My Heart, a Middletown-based nonprofit founded in 2017 to match therapy dogs with veterans. Headmistress Melissa DeLoreto came up with the brainchild of Brian R. Burridge, the East Lyme Veterans representative, who has been helping the school connect with individual veterans in need for the past four years.
The Friday event began in the school’s small gym, where the headmaster selected seven-year-old Evan Richert to draw the winning name. He randomly drew it from a colorful series of popsicles that made up the top 10 names chosen by school officials based on student feedback. Due to social distancing, only the students who submitted these names were in the gym as witnesses. The rest were watching TV from their individual classrooms.
Forever in My Heart’s founder and president, Mira Alicki, promised Sunny students to return regularly so they can see his growth and learn more about how therapy dogs are trained to help veterans.
According to Alicki, the organization has housed around 10 dogs with veterans since its inception. Each training lasts about a year and a half and costs approximately $ 25,000, although it is made available to veterans for free. The group’s focus on rescue dog use has expanded to include purebred puppies as genetic health and the benefits of temperament make the dogs in the program more likely to succeed, she said.
After the brief gathering, the students gathered in a moving crowd on Sunny while the dog sniffed at them and loosened masks with loving licks. Then it was Evan’s turn. Sunny walked over to the motorized wheelchair so that whoever had his name could stroke it gently on the side of his face.
Burridge watched from under his VFW hat. During the Vietnam War, he served in the US Navy and later in the Connecticut National Guard. In 2005 he retired as a staff sergeant.
“Now these students can see what their work has been used for and how it is helping veterans,” he said. “I’m so proud of these students.”
Burridge says Niantic is home to the highest concentration of veterans along the coast due to its proximity to the base, the US Coast Guard Academy, and three National Guard facilities.
The Veterans Contact said PTSD and the isolation it creates can make it difficult for veterans to seek help – and more difficult for them to meet them where they are so he can connect them to services.
Alicki said therapy dogs are well suited to help veterans escape isolation. She cited one of Forever’s earliest games in My Heart, where a German Shepherd met a veteran who hadn’t left home for more than four years due to fear of PTSD.
Alicki’s organization made the game in April, she said. In October of that year, the veteran felt comfortable enough not only to attend the organization’s annual gala, but also to speak in front of the crowd.
“He was standing in front of 430 people and talking,” she said. “Dogs make such a difference in their lives that therapy and medication can’t make.”
The gathering gave way to Sunny’s tour of numerous classrooms spread across the former middle school building that now houses the district’s preschool and kindergarten through to fourth grade students.
DeLoreto, the headmaster, signaled the dog’s entry with a “Who’s ready for Sunny?”
In one classroom, the dog attracted Addison Barajas, the second grader.
“He smells my dog,” she explained. As the dog sniffed his new friend’s face, she assured everyone that she was used to it.
“Get my back”
Sunny’s coach for the first two months is volunteer head coach Glenn Rodriguez from Middletown. Rodriguez is a licensed dog trainer and has a day job at the Center for Community Alternatives as the director of youth facilities and reintegration.
He said the training began with basic obedience. The name change must now be adopted.
“He’s been responding to ‘Puppy’ for two weeks,” he said. “He’ll have to learn his name.”
Once Sunny has completed his two months with Rodriguez, the pup becomes another trainer in the volunteer group. The list includes York Correctional Institution inmates who were selected through an application process to participate in the program.
Rodriguez said it was important to expose Sunny to various coaches – including men and women – so that he doesn’t become too attached to one person and remain open to the veteran who was ultimately chosen to be his home forever.
Rodriguez came to Connecticut from New York, where he was employed by the Puppies Behind Bars program, which trained psychiatric service dogs to perform PTSD-specific tasks and respond to special commands.
Forever in My Heart’s volunteer trainer, Doug Sanders from Berlin, said of these orders: “Get my back” and “Block”.
At the command to “get my back,” Sanders said a dog would sit against the veteran’s left leg and point backwards. Security helps veterans who experience hypervigilance, which is the condition where potential threats are constantly being assessed.
Both Alicki and Sanders were referring to a Navy veteran who had matched through the program, whose dog woke them up at the first sign of a nightmare. Knowing that she could look forward to a night without nightmares helped her insomnia, Sanders said.
“They’re scared of falling asleep,” he said of many veterans with PTSD. “But when they know the dog is going to wake them up, it can make a world of difference.”
Alicki says the US Department of Veterans Affairs has been slow to recognize that people with PTSD need service dogs just as badly as people with mobility impairments. She said the lack of support makes it difficult for them to afford a dog on their own, and those put on the waiting list for donated service dogs offered by various groups may have to wait a long time.
“Some of them are not going to make the suicide rate five years from now,” she said.
The latest data from the VA shows that 6,261 veterans died of suicide in 2019. The agency said the rate among veterans was 52.3% higher than that of non-veteran U.S. adults, when age and gender differences are factored in.
Burridge pointed out a new federal law passed this summer that will allow veterans with mental illness to train and service dogs whether or not they have mobility issues.
But the veterans liaison office said no one could tell him how to unlock the federal funds. He lamented the difficulty in accessing the benefits veterans with PTSD have received and deserve.
“How’s the funding going now that the law is in effect? Because we’re all right. We have the veterans who need the dogs, we have the dogs in training, we have the opportunity to continue training.” , “he said.” But funding has to come from students doing walkathons. “