Homefront Dogs help military veterans adjust after tough duty

07/01/2013 12:00 AM

07/01/2013 7:31 AM

Keiva, a 1-year-old female spotted pointer mix, practically blended in with the gray camouflage fatigues worn by former Army Spc. Phillip Dunn as she rested her head on his left thigh Sunday.

"I wouldn't be here without her," said Dunn, 27, of Manteca. "I don't do very well in big groups of people."

Keiva was one of nine Homefront Dogs that attended a special graduation ceremony held Sunday at the activity center of the Overlook at Blue Ravine apartments in Folsom. Three service dogs and two high-performance therapy dogs were also honored at the event.

Keiva was in the first class to graduate from the program run by Gabby Jack Ranch in Carmichael, which trains service dogs for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

"This is our way of saying 'thank you' and giving back," said Jacque Reynolds, founder and CEO of Gabby Jack Ranch.

What makes the Homefront Dogs special is that they are trained to deal with anxieties and fears that veterans with PTSD or TBI often have, which can prevent them from leading normal lives.

Dunn, who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2006-08, suffered from PTSD after witnessing a suicide bomber driving into a gas station in Baghdad on Aug. 1, 2007.

"I saw a lot of things that I didn't want to see," he recalled. "There were a lot of people killed, a lot of people screaming."

He still has nightmares from the incident, but Keiva helps him deal with them.

"She puts her paws on my chest and licks my face until I wake up," he said. "Seeing her takes me away from the feeling that I was there."

For former Army Spc. Allan Engvall, 27, of Sacramento, having Sparta, his 2-year-old male husky, meant he is able to work as a security guard at Kohl's.

He suffers from PTSD; his convoy hit a roadside bomb in Armani, Iraq, in June 2006.

"I could not get out of the house," he said of the time before he adopted Sparta and going through the Homefront Dogs program.

"I learned to focus, and not think about other stuff, which enables me to do my job," he said. "It makes it easy to go to work."

Part of the reason is that whenever he feels anxious, Sparta gives him an excuse to get out of the situation.

"He makes like he needs to go to the bathroom, so I can leave," Engvall said. "He takes the blame. I feel like he watches my back."

Former Senior Airman Melissa Gonzales, 32, of Fairfield served as a military police officer in Afghanistan from July through December 2009. She suffered TBI after her convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device.

"I could not enter a building, even if it was my own home," she said. But with Bindi, her 20-month-old female shepherd mix, she can.

"I would tell her to clear the building, and she would go in and turn on the light, so I would feel safe to go in," Gonzales said.

The Homefront Dogs program, which began about a year ago at Gabby Jack Ranch, pairs veterans with puppies.

"They learn what is normal for this particular person and what is not, and they react to that," said Terry Sandhoff, director of Gabby Jack Ranch's training department.

Most of the dogs in the program are poodles and labradoodles.

"They are sensitive, smart and easy to train," Sandhoff said. "They also don't shed."

Veterans and their dogs attend classes once a week for nine months to a year. Most veterans pay a $500 assessment fee.

For more information about the program, go to gabbyjackranch.org.

Call The Bee's Tillie Fong, (916) 321-1006.

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