Feb. 19-- HARTFORD, Conn.-A group of veterans and their service dogs, along with supporters of federal legislation that would help vets obtain the trained dogs as part of their treatment for a psychological or physical injury, gathered at the Connecticut Capitol Tuesday afternoon to screen the documentary "To Be of Service" and recognize the work of trainers Dale and Lu Picard of Winsted.
There was Phil Bauer, 43, explaining how Champagne saved his life. That's Lady Champagne, or Champ, his 5-year-old Labrador-Dane mix who, after 1,500 hours of training, is capable of dozens of specific tasks.
Bauer was trapped for hours in a mangled Chinook after the helicopter was shot down outside Fallujah in October 2003, when Bauer was a Calvary Scout with the 3rd Armor Cavalry Regiment. He leg was crushed and burning as he waited for rescuers with the Jaws of Life to pry some of the roof off his lower body. He lost his right leg. Of the 30 people aboard, 15 people died and 15 people lived. He had been heading for a few days of R & R.
After his discharge, he found himself being pummeled by nightmares and flashes of anger and was diagnosed with PTSD and depression.
He was spiraling downward, self-medicating with substances and withdrawing from the world. He attempted suicide.
Then Champ came into his life. He got her from a facility in Dobbs Ferry, New York. On the heels of that joyous occasion, he got a job offer from Lu and Dale Picard, who run East Coast Assistance Dogs out of 9,000-square foot training academy on 14 acres in Winsted. Bauer learned how to train the dogs, then he learned how to help teach disadvantaged kids so they in turn could train the dogs and derive a tremendous amount of gratification.
He found himself again.
"It has saved my life," said Bauer. "The dog gives you your life back, gives you a source of purpose, proves to you that you can love and trust again."
The Picards have heard many stories like Bauer's and these successes have kept the couple going for 25 years. Lu had trained her family dog to help her father after he had a stroke and she saw how powerful the bond became and noticed how much more energy her father had when the dog was helping him. She decided to spend the rest of her life training service dogs for others and brought her husband into the pursuit.
The Picards were in the forefront of a national movement to allow service dogs in court to help children and other vulnerable witnesses testify and at one point were training disadvantaged students at five residential schools in New York to work with service dogs.
Lu Picard said the dogs typically train for 18 months to two years and aren't released to the owner until they can perform dozens of specific tasks. Dale Picard said those include alerting their owner if life-saving equipment, such as a respirator, stops or malfunctions over night, or sensing when an owner who has diabetes is experiencing a hike or dip in insulin levels. The dogs can become almost indispensable. They open doors, retrieve items, pull wheel chairs, alert when it's time for an owner's medications, provide buffer in a crowd, turn lights on and off, and exert a calming influence in times of distress.
"She gets my leg when I leave it in the other room," said Bauer.
Congress is now considering a bill, referred to as the PAWS Act of 2019, that would offer grants to private groups "for the provision of service dogs to eligible veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and for other purposes."
State Rep. Robin Comey, a Democrat of Branford who helped organize the gathering, said the availability of service dogs "is one piece of what must be a comprehensive care-plan for our veterans. We want to make sure that any federal legislation is widely known. I can see it saving on health-care costs and helping veterans to get their needs met."
The legislature last year discussed fines of up to $150 for people who misrepresent their pets as service dogs in public, but a proposed bill failed. Comey said that concept may be raised again.
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