By Penny Preston, KULR
CODY, Wyo. - A four-month-old golden retriever is making history in Northwest Wyoming. The puppy named Sierra is training to be a Battle Buddy, and may save the life of a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, a brain injury, or physical limitations. Sierra is learning the ropes with an experienced Battle Buddy: Gabriel.
On the playground, Sierra and Gabriel are just dogs, who like to play. But when they are in uniform, these dogs are all business. They are Battle Buddies, that are nearby to provide comfort to the veteran they protect. These service dogs go through years of training to be invisible, out of the way, and always close.
Sierra’s Trainer is a Marine veteran.
"When a veteran is out with his service dog. The dog is to be settled," Jona Vanata explained.
Jona is married to Marine veteran Vince Vanata, who takes Gabriel with him everywhere. Gabriel is aware of Vince’s moods. He even wakes the former marine from a bad dream. The non-profit group called Northwest Battle Buddies provides service dogs to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, or physical limitations. Jona has seen Gabriel’s effect up close.
"We were at Arlington for the memorial service for the USS Cole. All of a sudden Gabriel got up, came alongside my husband, leaned into him, and it kind of just wasn’t enough," she said. "Then all of a sudden he brought his head up, and lifted my husband’s hand up, and it was the true image of ‘Hey, I’m here for you, buddy.’"
Jona is the first puppy trainer outside of Washington State.
"My husband and his dog Gabriel are considered a team, and we’re the first team to raise a puppy for the organization," Jona said.
Jona takes Sierra into places that might be distracting for other dogs, then teaches her, like Gabriel, to be quiet, out of the way, and near.
She gets help from a veteran.
"Well I would say about 75% of it is Gabriel," Jona said. She said the older dog is actually helping potty train the puppy. She’s also learning commands from the big dog. "When my husband gives a formal command, which is 'down,' we're noticing that actually Sierra is going in a down position and waiting until Gabriel can get back up and play."
So, how do these service dogs know when it is time to play, and when it is time to work? It’s the uniform of course. When the vest is on, they are the Battle Buddies. When the vest comes off, it’s time to play.
When Sierra is ten months old, she’ll be sent to another trainer to prepare her for service. Although it costs about $25,000 to train each dog, Northwest Battle Buddies gives them to veterans at no charge. If you would like to know more about the service dogs, you can find information at: northwestbattlebuddies.org.