Nonprofit links service dogs with veterans suffering PTSD
By HEATHER WYSOCKI | Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. | Published: February 19, 2013
MASHPEE — Tracy was on a mission.
Tongue lolling and eyes twinkling, she snuffled her way across the Oriental carpet to reach her destination: a fluffy couch, and on it a person willing to rub her belly with abandon.
On this cold day at a home on Mashpee's Monomoscoy Island, Tracy — a nearly 1-year-old golden retriever — was enjoying her puppyhood.
But the night before, Tracy's mission was much different.
"I know I was having some funky dreams last night, because I woke with her next me, felt her paw on me," said Adam Babiarz, 29, of Sandwich, Tracy's owner-handler. "If I'm going a thousand miles an hour, she'll ground me, bring me back."
That night, and every day since coming to the Cape with Babiarz in early December, Tracy's doggy desires have taken a back seat to her real job: helping Adam navigate days full of anxiety and situations triggered by his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tracy, like her counterparts from the North Carolina-based nonprofit organization Carolina Patriot Rovers, is an Americans with Disabilities Act-approved service dog named after a military member killed in action.
And if Patriot Rovers and the Mashpee nonprofit organization Heroes in Transition, started by Gold Star parents Kenneth and Cynthia Jones, get their way, more dogs like Tracy — perhaps named for fallen local service members — eventually will make their way to the Cape to help veterans here.
Two dogs already have been named for Cape Marines killed in Afghanistan. One of those dogs has been tentatively paired with a Bourne veteran; the other is awaiting a match, and Patriot Rovers is seeking applications.
"Dogs touch people's hearts," Cynthia Jones said as Tracy nuzzled close on a day in late January. The Joneses' son, Marine Capt. Eric Jones, died in October 2009 in Afghanistan. The Joneses became close to Babiarz after he attended a blood drive in their son's name last summer, and he now volunteers with their charity.
"Watching Adam and Tracy, it just warms the heart. You can see where all the hard work (of training) goes," she said.
Carolina Patriot Rovers was started by David Cantara, an Army veteran looking to help others coming back from war.
"These soldiers were surviving multiple combat deployments, but unable to make the transition to civilian life," he said.
Through life's difficulties — the death of a daughter and a brother, family illnesses and his own PTSD diagnosis — dogs had been a constant comfort, and Cantara, a dog trainer and behaviorist for around 20 years, thought canines might be able to help others, too.
By spring 2011, he had trained five Patriot Rovers that now reside with disabled veterans across the country. In total, the program has graduated 46 "Rovers," Cantara said.
Another class of 20 pups will graduate in May, on Armed Forces Day.
Before the dogs go home with their veterans, they go through months of behavioral training beginning with basic obedience and ending with a week of work with their future handlers.
Training is around $8,000 to $10,000 per dog, Jones said, plus the cost of getting veterans to and from North Carolina. The dogs and their training are free for recipients.
Dogs learn how to stay calm in stressful situations — from riding in an airplane to visiting Wal-Mart — and how to help their veterans, from acting as a cushion during seizures to helping calm those with PTSD.
"I want the easiest-to-handle dog ... a calming influence at their side. I don't want them to be stressed anymore," Cantara said of the recipients.
Most veterans are recommended to Patriot Rovers by counselors and psychologists they've seen through the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.
The training is grueling, said Babiarz, a Marine infantryman who served two tours. But back home — after an airplane trip on which Tracy flew in the next seat — life has been completely different.
Before Tracy's arrival, trips to the grocery store could turn into anxiety attacks, and certain triggers would cause Babiarz to pace, hyperventilate and overreact, he said.
Now, Tracy can step in between her owner and someone getting too close or simply remind him that he's safe — and not back in Iraq, where he served in 2008.
"She's preventive maintenance," he said. "I know what she's there for and it helps me from going, you know, overboard."
Babiarz said he has even begun to help coach a youth lacrosse team in Mashpee.
Along with helping veterans like Babiarz with combat-related issues, also essential to the Patriot Rovers mission is memorializing soldiers who didn't come home.
Each dog is named after a deceased service member, with the blessing of the service member's family. Tracy is named for Army 2nd Lt. Tracy Alger, a Wisconsin native who died in November 2007 in Iraq.
Her name and an Army patch, along with one signifying Babiarz's service, decorate the canine Tracy's service vest.
Because of donations from Heroes in Transition and other supporters, Cantara already has named two Rovers-in-training after Cape Marines. "Jethro" is named for Eric Jones' call name, and Nick is named after Marine Cpl. Nicholas Xiarhos of Yarmouthport, who died in July 2009 in Afghanistan.
"We certainly want to be a reciprocal organization and support those who support us. And if the people of Massachusetts are going to help fund this healing mission, then certainly we want to see them benefit," Cantara said.
On Cape Cod there are 2,713 veterans with service-connected disabilities, according to U.S. Census information. Numbers were not available for the Islands.
An application from a Bourne veteran for Jethro already has been accepted and awaits approval from Patriot Rovers' board of directors, Cantara said. Patriot Rovers is looking for a suitable Cape veteran for Nick, too, and for veterans who could benefit from future Rovers. The hope is to name some of those dogs after other service members with Cape ties killed in action.
It's a legacy that the Joneses and Nicholas Xiarhos' father, Steven Xiarhos, can't wait to see come to fruition.
"Every Marine that Nick served with, they have some form of PTSD. Every one," Xiarhos said. "God bless Nick. He's not suffering anymore. But there are so many that are ... so knowing that that dog will be helping a veteran and their family, that's the most important part."