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Filling a Need with Veteran’s K9 Connections

10/26/2016 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Paws for Healing

November 2016
By Melissa Mendonca
Photo by Jen Womack

Not long after hanging up his flight gear from a 43-year career as a helicopter pilot, Vietnam veteran Bruce Riecke of Red Bluff noticed a change within. “Those compartments with doors on them—they didn’t stay closed,” he says. “When you slow down, and you’ve got time to think...”

As if on cue, Keisha, his “little 20 pounds of fur” and companion service dog, snuggles up to Riecke, reminding him she’s there as he tells his story. “I found it very helpful to have this dog around,” he continues. “She had a sensing of anxieties and demonstrations of PTSD. She started picking up these red flags that would pop up in me.”

Realizing little Keisha’s power to comfort him, Riecke began thinking of the impact that dogs could have on other veterans experiencing post traumatic stress disorder. “The concept had so much merit I couldn’t let it go. It couldn’t let me go,” he says. He began researching programs to match veterans with canines, but didn’t find anything closer than Sacramento. What he did find was cost prohibitive, especially for veterans on a fixed disability income.

He immediately went about putting together a team of people to help him get his idea up and running for local veterans. In March of this year, Veteran’s K9 Connections became a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, though dog trainer Andrew Figueroa had started with his first group of veterans and dogs in June 2015. Riecke is based in Red Bluff and the training occurs in Anderson, but the training and support are available to any veteran in the North State.

Marine Corps veteran Jennifer Bretney and her partner, Army veteran Shawn Casey, both drive from Durham every Friday to train their dogs, Critter and Scout, at the VFW Hall with Figueroa. A volunteer with Pets for Vets had helped them find Scout at the Tehama County Animal Shelter.

“We realized that if we got them both certified, we could take them camping with us on Forest Service land,” says Bretney. While she looks forward to many camping vacations, there’s also a very practical component to the day-to-day living the couple experiences with various service-related injuries.

“Luckily, our PTSD manifests differently,” says Bretney of the injuries she and Casey are managing. “His is during the day when he’s out in public. Mine is at night, though my nightmares are relieved when Shawn is with me.” Bretney, a teacher, lives with myriad illnesses and injuries, which have included four knee surgeries, cancer, chemical exposure and other as-yet-undiagnosed maladies.

“I don’t really need a dog at work,” she says. “I need a dog when I have surgeries because I can’t have painkillers.”

Finding and becoming active with Veteran’s K9 Connections has given the couple an opportunity to not only train service dogs, but to interact with others. “We really need that social interaction with other veterans,” says Bretney.

“When something works, you can’t keep it quiet,” says Riecke of the success the organization has bred so far. “Veterans will talk to veterans.”

“We’re targeting PTSD anxiety because in the last two or three years, every veteran I’ve met has anxiety,” he adds. Some, like Riecke, are, as he puts it, opening compartments of memory that have been long shuttered. Others, like Bretney and Casey, are managing more recent injuries. Casey was a combat medic in Iraq and Bretney was a combat swimmer injured in Okinawa, Japan.

The training starts with a six-week series that is free to veterans. They may bring their own dogs or get help finding a dog to train by organization volunteers. They may then move up to advanced training, which is another six-week course in which a $10 donation is requested for each class.

Those who move to advanced level typically hope to certify their dogs to Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Dogs must perform a 14-point test developed by Service Dogs International. “We aren’t taking any shortcuts,” says Riecke.

While he won’t underestimate the impact of a canine companion or service animal for alleviating PTSD anxiety, Riecke notes that it’s one strand of a life-saving rope that may also include counseling, medication and spiritual development. “Pretty soon you have a pretty good rope that can be significant in a person’s life,” he says. With this, he gives Keisha an extra squeeze and she looks up at him as if in complete agreement.

Find Veteran’s K9 Connections on Facebook