Program aims to train shelter dogs to aid veterans

Program aims to train shelter dogs to aid veterans
Next Step Service Dogs team, from left: Michael Japak, Gibbs, founder Sally Montrucchio, Marvin Cruz, Gunny, Amber Boutwell. Photo by Lillian Cox

SOLANA BEACH — When historians look back on The Great Recession, they’ll no doubt write about soaring unemployment among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well as the high incidence of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury.) 

They may also mention the fact that shelters and dog rescue organizations throughout the U.S. are overwhelmed with dogs needing new homes due to the high rate of foreclosures and military transfers.

Sally Montrucchio hopes to roll back these numbers with the launch of Next Step Service Dogs. The program’s goal is to hire veterans for well-paying jobs training service dogs for veterans with PTSD/TBI and mobility issues. Companion dogs already belonging to vets with these challenges will have the opportunity of testing for the program first.

Otherwise, shelter dogs will be tapped as canine cadets in the Next Step program. Montrucchio is the training director of Next Step Service Dogs, Inc.

Service dogs offer many benefits to veterans with PTSD/TBI: They give vets a sense of safety and protection, making them more able to return to work or go to college. Dogs can help reduce the risk of a serious mental breakdown, suicidal thoughts, alcoholism, drug use and violence. Consequently, medical and psychiatric costs are reduced.

Montrucchio became involved with service dogs after being a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence about 15 years ago. Afterward she worked as the training director for Tender Loving Canines for several years. Last year her experience training seven service dogs at Camp Pendleton raised an awareness of the great need for these dogs and inspired her to start Next Step Service Dogs last January.

Instead of puppies, Montrucchio recruits older dogs, ages 1 to 5, for the program.

“That cuts the training from 22 to 25 months down to six months,” she explained. To date, Next Step has one adult rescue dog that is fully trained, one adult pet dog mostly trained and two puppies in training. All breeds and mixes are considered with the exception of Dobermans and pit bills.

“Typically, we use working dogs like golden retrievers, labs, standard poodles and other breeds that the public perceives as friendly,” she said, adding that a 10-point test is required for certification.

Dogs are taught approximately 60 commands beginning with standing, sitting and heeling. As they progress in training, they learn blocking, to prevent people from getting too close, and searching from room-to-room to alleviate anxiety for those with PTSD/TBI.

Former military dog trainers and other veterans are being hired for full or part-time jobs as dog trainers.

“This helps to employ more warriors, and often these warriors have some degree of PTSD and/or another disability, and are most effective in training other warriors,” Montrucchio said. “We have two Marines who recently left the military, are trained in service dog work, and ready to be hired. There are more waiting to be trained.”

One of these is Marvin Cruz, who is being groomed to head the San Diego chapter of Next Step Service Dogs. Cruz was a bomb dog handler in Afghanistan, and is training with Gunny, a Labradoodle that Montrucchio rescued when she was visiting her sister in South Salt Lake City. Cruz is impressed with Gunny’s progress, and said the pup’s got the right stuff.

“I was having a bad day, remembering a friend who had passed away,” he said. “Gunny was sitting on the floor, then straightened his back, leaned towards me and put his head on my shoulder.”

Michael Japak developed PTSD after serving in U.S. Army as a tanker and scout in Iraq. Training to become a service dog trainer comes naturally to him. Before enlisting he bred, trained and sold pit bulls as pets in his hometown of Orlando, Fla.

“I’m a lot calmer around the dogs,” he said. “They love you no matter what. This is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing — training dogs and helping brothers.”

Amber Boutwell uses a wheelchair after being injured while training at Fort Sill, Okla. “I was a firefighter and an EMT, and want to give back,” she said. “This work is just as important.”

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