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Program lets veterans train assistance dogs

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

New year, new start on life.

For Norman Landry, a 67-year-old Vietnam vet, that means helping train a service dog for a fellow veteran in need. And, if all goes well, avoiding prison time.

A fledgling program in the Veterans Court at 2nd Judicial District Court gives vets like Landry – who have landed in trouble with the law because of trauma associated with combat – a mission to help train service dogs. Veterans Court is a post-plea program that allows veterans who qualify and meet certain requirements to obtain a conditional discharge at its conclusion.

The dog-training program, which started in August, is for participants in Veterans Court who volunteer, are screened and make a six-month commitment to work with the dogs.

Landry was among the half-dozen men in the first group training dogs. He was charged in January 2013 with kidnapping and battery on a police officer after he said he snapped, blacked out and woke up in jail. He entered an Alford plea – a plea of guilty while maintaining one’s innocence – and was accepted in Veterans Court.

Ginger Varcoe, the Veterans Court coordinator, said although many programs use service dogs, this is the first to have veterans train dogs for other veterans.

“I foresee it as something that’s just going to grow,” she said, noting that it includes therapeutic aspects and giving back, all within the legal system.

The dog-training program officially was launched in August; the first group finishes this month. The initial participants probably will become mentors for incoming vets.

“There’s already a waiting list once this group finishes,” Varcoe said.

Here’s what they do:

Once a week, the vets show up at Dogwood Therapy, tucked into a strip mall on Alameda Boulevard, where occupational therapist Melissa Winkle uses and trains service dogs as part of her practice.

At Dogwood, vets spend a half day working with dogs provided by the Santa Fe-based nonprofit Assistance Dogs of the West.

The vets and their dogs go over and over exercises like “push” as the puppies – Labradors, golden retrievers and Labradoodles donated by breeders – push balls around a large room, with a treat at the end for getting it right.

The exercises will allow the dogs at the end of two years to perform 90 different tasks for veterans with physical disabilities and mobility problems. The dogs will be able to turn on lights, open and close doors and drawers, and retrieve dropped objects, such as keys, a cellphone or a credit card.

The trainers also learn how to praise and reassure dogs when they experience something startling like a car backfire.

Assistance Dogs founder Jill Felice said the funds raised thus far only pay for a once-a-week program.

“We’d like to have more classes for vets in need,” she said.

To expand to the goal of twice-daily, four-times-a-week training for Veterans Court, Assistance Dogs of the West will need to come up with $350,000 a year.

The program is part of getting vets back into civilian society by giving them life skills and responsibilities. ADW follows the trademarked Warrior Canine Connection and best practices devised by Walter Reed Army Medical Center and is the nation’s first service dog agency to work with the Veterans Court program.

ADW has enlisted people like Sgt. Steve Rose as a program mentor and trainer.

Rose, now medically retired from the Army, volunteered for Afghanistan and sustained a traumatic brain injury while serving on a Patrol Explosive Detection Dog Team.

His dog, Bento, was killed by an improvised explosive device hidden in a bag of fertilizer. Rose credits him with saving his life.

These days, Landry, who has a diagnosis of PTSD, shows up early to play with his dog before the training officially starts. Rose is there watching and helping as Landry and Gunner work on learning the skills that eventually will aid a fellow vet. Landry says the Pomeranian he has at home gets jealous from the smell of another dog.

Iraq war medic Antonio Cano, 37, was jailed for DWI and assault on a peace officer. He is committed to Veterans Court through May 2016 and works weekly with his assigned dog, Wally. He hopes to keep going beyond the six-month commitment.

“Veterans Court … is a wonderful program, in my opinion. We are not criminals, but we need help and guidance,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t work anymore. I don’t have the career I did. But I am making somewhat of a difference, and maybe being able to help somebody else is a positive. I get gratification from that.”

What is Veterans Court?

Veterans Court, a program of the 2nd District Court in Bernalillo County, allows military veterans in trouble with the law to avoid jail time by meeting certain criteria.

Launched in late 2011 by the court and presided over by 2nd District Judge Stan Whitaker, the program’s mission is to divert veterans from the traditional criminal justice system through treatment, reinforcement and monitoring by the court.

It allows criminal proceedings to be suspended while participants are in the program, and typically a conditional discharge results at the conclusion.

All participants are assigned a peer mentor, and they agree to substance-abuse testing, weapons prohibition and compliance with the medications and treatment they’re prescribed.

It requires a commitment of 18 months to two years, according to coordinator Ginger Varcoe.

Another component is a requirement for a “pay-it-forward” community service project of some kind, such as the dog-training program.

There are about 50 participants, but the program is expanding.

For more information on the dog-training program, visit