2016-01-05 / Front Page

Coastal Humane Society dogs improving veterans’ lives

Shelter partners with Embrace A Vet, North Edge K9 to form K9s on the Front Line
The Times Record

VETERAN SAM RAYMOND shares a joyful moment with Gracie the service dog. 
COURTESY PHOTO VETERAN SAM RAYMOND shares a joyful moment with Gracie the service dog. COURTESY PHOTO BRUNSWICK

On Thursday at noon, five veterans and their new service dogs will graduate from the newly-formed veteran cause, K9s on The Front Line. Training has been taking place in Gorham for the last 16 weeks and this will be the first class to graduate from this newly formed collaboration between Coastal Humane Society of Brunswick, Embrace A Vet, and North Edge K9.

Christian Stickney, a 20- plus-year police officer and K9 trainer with the Portland Police Department, and Hagen Blaszyk, director of Anatomic Pathology for Spectrum Medical Group, formed North Edge K9 three years ago. Stickney's knowledge and expertise in the law enforcement K9 training sector and Blaszyk's habit for being medically inquisitive have proven to be a force to be reckoned with regarding their new veteran cause, according to a press release. In 2014, North Edge K9 was given a contract to train five service dogs for veterans in North Carolina. The profound experience made the pair look for ways to continue as they realized the immense need in their own community.

They found Embrace A Vet and Coastal Humane Society were already doing a similar program, so together with North Edge K9, K9s on The Front Line was born.

The project pairs TBI/PTSD Combat Veterans with a shelter dog from Coastal Humane Society. The dog and the veteran undergo a 16-week course at North Edge K9’s facility in Gorham. The results are the Veteran receives a fully trained service dog, lifelong companion and at no cost to the veteran. The program is funded through donations made to Embrace A Vet, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to serving Maine Veterans. The group's approach has proven to be both successful and effective, at a fraction of the cost compared to national average.

Additionally, data is collected to measure the short and long term medical benefits of the therapy provided by the service dog. Some tasks the dogs train for are to recognize and diffuse anger by engaging their handlers, or detecting waves of sadness and interrupting with a hug. They can wake their handlers from nightmares, intercept flashbacks, cover their front and back in public, and act as a buffer for socializing with the general public again. These dogs require activities of daily living- exercise, meals, going outside to go to the bathroom, etc. All of these things force even the most affected individual get out of bed and take care of their dog. It forces the Veteran to do things they may not care about doing for themselves but have to do for their partner.

On Sept. 9, 2001, Sam Raymond, an Air Force veteran from West Gardiner arrived in Saudi Arabia for a routine air watch mission. After the 9/11 attacks two days later, Raymond’s unit was immediately diverted to Iraq.

Raymond, a husband and father of two who now lives in South Portland, was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The condition is debilitating and can last a lifetime, preventing affected individuals from living a normal life. It is triggered by terrifying events — either experiencing or witnessing it. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety or anger, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the traumatic events. Every day, more than 22 veterans end their own lives.

At 11 months and 115 pounds, Gracie climbs up into her handlers lap, puts two massive paws on his shoulders and offers Raymond sloppy kisses. Gracie is preparing to graduate her 16 week training course to be a service dog for her new friend, and handler, Raymond.

K9s on the Front Line said they are extremely pleased with the outcome of their first session. There were 5 Veterans, their dogs and several law enforcement K9 trainers.

Stickney recalls the first day of class: “It was a lot like the first day of school everyone was quiet, sort of feeling out the rest of the group. To see everyone now joking around, throwing jabs at each other. … It's been a great experience to be a part of.”

The group also stresses that they are not just training dogs; the byproduct is the community that is forming. The dogs are simply the connectors. Each Veteran who completes the program is encouraged to keep in touch, stop by to visit, and come to future classes.

“This doesn't end in 16 weeks,” says Stickney.

The group’s website, K9sOnTheFrontLine.com will go live in January, and their efforts can be followed by liking their Facebook page, K9s on The Front Line.

If you are interested in donating, volunteering, participating or helping out in fundraisers, or you know someone who would benefit from completing the program, contact Hagen Blaszyk at NorthEdgeK9@gmail.com or Linda Murray at (207) 272- 0954.

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