Twin non-profit association of veterinarians, first responders with assistance dogs | Local News

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BENNINGTON – A non-profit organization that matches veterans and first responders with service dogs and trains new human-canine duos to work together has moved to Bennington and is looking for a permanent home in the county .

Vermont Paws and Boots moved to its current and temporary location at 114 Gage St. in December. The organization, established in 2015, was previously based in Chittenden County.

K9 executive director and head coach Michelle LeBlanc, a retired Vermont state police officer who also served for a time in the US military, said the group had moved to the area with the idea that he could acquire more land for a facility at a lower price than in Chittenden County and more easily reach veterans and first responders in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying real estate boom, however, have complicated the group’s continued search for land in Bennington County, LeBlanc said. Ideally, the property would have five or more acres, sufficient space for a 4,000 to 6,000 square foot training facility, and housing for students who are training to become assistance dog handlers.

The nonprofit has lost half a dozen properties to buyers who bid above the asking price, LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc has Bennington roots, having graduated from Mount Anthony Union High School in 1988 before attending Norwich University.

The planned future facility would allow students to participate in the program full-time, according to LeBlanc. Currently, students – who may be faced with trips of several hours – train at the Gage Street location one to two days a week in a small classroom.

Since its inception, 18 students have graduated from the program, which takes nearly a year to complete, said LeBlanc. Another group of students are expected to graduate in a month or two.

The program is for military veterans and first responders – a category that includes, but is not limited to, firefighters, police and emergency medical technicians – who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. , head trauma, military sexual trauma, or physical disability. Prospective students go through an application process that requires letters of support from counselors and therapist, service documentation, a home visit, an essay on why the applicant needs a dog assistance and a formal interview.

LeBlanc said asking for help is “a huge step” for veterans and first responders, who “have been taught all our lives to run in danger and to be the strongest and most dominant.”

“’I’m really in pain today’ – that’s a hard thing for people to say,” said LeBlanc.

The search for the right dog to match an accepted student is also vast, according to LeBlanc. The vast majority of dogs are rescue dogs from the southern United States; the others are the pets of students who meet certain criteria, such as no history of aggression.

Once LeBlanc finds a dog with the appropriate temperament and physical attributes for a given student, potential teammates are introduced to each other to make sure they are compatible.

The non-profit organization retains ownership of the dog until the student completes the program, which is free for participants.

Through the program, dogs learn to perform a variety of tasks for and with their handlers, such as helping them sit and stand up from chairs, pick up items, and look after their handlers in the midst of busy times. ‘anxiety or panic, LeBlanc said. Each student has unique needs, explained LeBlanc, but all pairs learn to perform a wide variety of tasks.

LeBlanc said one of the program’s mantras is “what we see, we can never see” – recognition of difficult past experiences – but she also advises that using a service dog can. help the masters to lead a more normal life, which allows them to go shopping or attend a wedding without fear.

Students who graduate from the program are retested every year, LeBlanc said. Graduates sometimes return to help with lectures and student field questions.

The organization is embarking on a fundraising campaign to build the potential new facility, estimated before the pandemic at $ 1.5 million, LeBlanc said.

Those interested in learning more about the nonprofit can visit its website, vermontpawsandboots.org, and its Facebook page, facebook.com/VermontPaws.



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