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Service Dogs for Warriors

Written by Bronson, Steve

When Brad Lang lost his legs in Afghanistan, he never said, “If only…” Instead, he has only looked forward. “I don’t regret my decision to become an EOD Tech, or my decision to join the USMC. Losing my legs and the hurdles I have had to overcome since have all made me a better man, a better father, and a better husband. I have never looked back, and I never will.”

That’s a lot to take in all at once from a young man on a wheel chair missing both of his legs while doing a job he loved, making it safer for other U.S. Marines and fellow military personnel to do their jobs in safety.

Johnny Morris and Brad Lang were both active duty Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technicians in the United States Marine Corps. While conducting combat operations in July 2011 in adjacent operational areas, Johnny and Brad were called upon to render safe and dispose of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that had been located. During their missions, they were each struck by an unidentified IED resulting in traumatic amputations for both. Johnny lost his left leg below the knee, and Brad lost both legs above the knee.

While recovering together at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – Bethesda, they decided work together and open a custom firearms business. After never-ending discussions on store names, Brad’s wife said, “You should call it Stumpies. You have only got one good leg between you two!” They agreed and Stumpies Custom Guns was incorporated in 2012. For my money that also says these two youngsters have a great sense of humor. Since then, they have worked diligently to both recover from their injuries while building their small business.

The EODWF, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Warrior Foundation offered to provide Brad a service animal. When an untrained Belgian Malinois named Diego came available thru a donation, Brad jumped at the opportunity to have one of these highly sought-after K9s.

In September 2013, while attending the Grand Opening of the Boulder Crest Retreat for Wounded Warriors, I met with Brad Lang, and introduced my personal service animal K9 Axl Rose. I took a picture of Brad and Axl, doing what Axl does best: giving hugs and kisses to wounded warriors!

We discussed Brad’s dog, his lack of training, and what it would take to get Diego trained to be a full-time service dog for Brad. Brad told me the EODWF had been instrumental in placing Diego with him, and they had offered to pay for any special training. As an Official Ambassador of the EODWF, I thought about Diego, and his much-needed training and volunteered to train Diego.

Training Brad to be Diego’s handler is going to be the most difficult phase of all the Service Animal training phases Diego is going through. Brad has already had Diego at home, and considers him his pet. Brad definitely has some surprises ahead of him. During the initial training phase, and through all of his training, Diego is being trained in plain English. That way every member of his family can give Diego commands. Plain English makes everything that much simpler and easier for everybody involved.

Several months after my initial offer, I heard from Brad that he was ready to take me up on my offer, and asked when we could make the trip east to his place. I flew to Raleigh, N.C. to spend a few days with Brad and his family and go to work with him. I wanted to observe his dog in action, to observe Brad, his family and his co-workers interacting with Diego on a daily basis in all aspects of their daily life, and in particular Diego’s interactions, and reactions.

I observed all Brad’s daily activities to see what specific skills were needed by Diego to interact with Brad, as well as to determine what K9 traits specific to Mailnois would need to be modified to help mold Diego into a fully capable service animal. The Federal guidelines for Service Animals are very loose.

Simply stated, an individual who is handicapped, or is otherwise disabled, is fully authorized to have a service animal. The animal, however, must assist the individual in a specific manner. Brad’s biggest request was to have Diego learn how to retrieve his wheelchair should he ever fall from his wheelchair and it slide down a hillside or some similar situation occur.

The individual may be requested to answer two questions. Is the animal a Service Animal? If so, what service does the animal provide? A service dog must be trained to perform tasks that will assist a specific individual with a disability. For example, open pushbutton handicapped controlled doors, open and close French doors, open most handicapped entry stalls in the restroom, even call for an elevator. Each service dog and handler must meet precise criteria before qualification to work as a team. CQB K9 will administer the AKA Good Citizen Conduct for K9 test to Diego before he is turned over to Brad.

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects individuals with physical, sensory, intellectual, mental and psychiatric disabilities who use service dogs trained to perform specific tasks. United States federal law does not require service dogs to be legally certified. However, because service dog laws vary from state to state, it’s good to know your state’s laws. In addition, the Service Animal Harness does not have any specific requirements either. It is recommended that it indicate the animal is a service dog, and if in training should so indicate.

Often a Do Not Pet patch can also be found on many service dog harnesses, while on others there is an I Am Friendly patch. Further, there is no requirement that a Service Dog wear a harness, or be on a leash if either would prevent the animal from performing their service to/for their handler. For veterans who may not display outward signs of disability, they may have a Service Animal that alerts to a medical condition, or as an emotional support animal for a PTSD victim. There are specific guidelines for emotional service animals.

Some of the training teaches the K9 how to use a Jog a Dog Treadmill. With Brad in a wheelchair for some time, the treadmill is used to be sure Diego would get exercise, which burns up energy. More than just a workout, this will keep Diego from pacing in the Gun Shop, allowing Brad and his staff to work in peace and focus on customers.

Oftentimes we take for granted that our dogs will respond the same way as we will. Not so. For instance, the banging and clanging of grocery carts can spook some dogs, which is a requirement of a good service animal to be non-responsive to these sounds and issues. Opening and closing doors is another daily task that Diego has been very successful in learning and mastering. He not only opens handicapped doors, he calls the elevator as well.

Another of Diego’s major challenges has been helping him overcome his prey drive, and instincts to herd. Children make unique noises when they scream, chuckle, and when a group of them are in the park together. As we walk past a park filled with laughing children, Diego instinctually feels he has to herd them into a group, and gets anxious. In grocery stores, he alerts on children, and has tried to grab them by their pants cuff, to push them into the center, so he can herd them. These instincts and behaviors are not conducive to Service Animal behavior.

Starting out simply as a K9 service animal handler, and training my service animal to use his training to deliver kisses and hugs to wounded warriors, and to fetch/retrieve the ball for wounded warriors, has grown into training a K9 for a wounded warrior. It has developed into a small organization: Service Animals 4 Warriors, SAW. This will include a line of gear specifically for these K9 and their handlers: SAW Gear.

The plan is to turn Diego over to Brad in July during a major East Coast tactical event, in an effort to have as many well wishers on hand to see Diego, the newly trained Service Animal, and Brad come together permanently. Brad Lang has been and continues to be an inspiration to me, and someone I have come to respect deeply.

 

Chief Bronson, USN Ret, is the official Ambassador for EODWF to the PACNORWEST, a lifetime UDT/SEAL Assoc. member, IACP Assoc. member, IABTI Assoc. member, and Lifetime NRA member. He can be reached through www.eodwarriorfoundation.org.


Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2014

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