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Pa. group teaches dogs new tricks to help disabled vets

By DAN SHEEHAN | The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) | Published: February 22, 2016

It's not so hard to teach a dog to open a door. You need a handful of treats, a door with a rope on the handle and Job-like patience, because the dog naturally is more interested in the treats than the door.

Eventually, though, the dog will recognize that an open door equals a treat and a closed door doesn't. When that happens, as it does with regularity in Heather Lloyd's Springfield Township training facility, it means another dog is another step closer to becoming a service companion to a disabled military veteran.

Lloyd's nonprofit program, Tails of Valor, Paws of Honor, uses rescue dogs to this end, so it doesn't just help veterans adjust to civilian life. It also finds permanent homes for the dogs.

"We teach them so that together they can go out into society as a successful team," said Lloyd, 45, who has devoted nearly 20 years to the care of dogs through her business, Critter Corral Inc.

She has two locations — the training center and high-end kennel in Springfield, called the resort, and a Coopersburg storefront for food and grooming.

On Tuesday, Lloyd and other trainers at the resort put a half-dozen dogs through their paces, drilling them in the fundamental commands — sit, stay, heel and so on.

"It's really just all about the treats," quipped George Mutter of Quakertown, a once-homeless Army veteran who worked for a similar program in Maryland and now works as Lloyd's program manager.

Over time, the dogs learn how to help with tasks — door opening, switching on lights, fetching things — and, in some cases, how to provide a comforting shield against the isolating burden of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When a dog comes to you, how can you want to be alone?" said Ray Rosenberger of Bethlehem, who served in the Marines from 2000-04 as a combat medical operator with the 2nd Tank Battalion and came home from Iraq with PTSD.

Rosenberger visits Critter Corral a few times a week to train his 5-month-old Rottweiler, Bella. He also volunteers to train other dogs.

"When I'm having [PTSD] triggers, Bella will calm me down and bring me around," said Rosenberger, 34. "A little puppy lick, or having someone to talk to, it gets me away from thinking about the war."

Rosenberger's son, 15-year-old Alex, said Bella can sense his father's moods.

"When he's feeling mad or sad, she comes up to him and plays around and stuff," he said.

Mutter's joke about treats aside, the success of the program depends more on the dedication of the trainers than the avid appetites of the dogs, all of whom were rescued as pups and are on their way to being permanently teamed with a veteran.

So far, one dog has been placed, another will graduate in March, and seven are in training.

"Coffee, patience and poo bags — the essentials of animal training," Mutter said, amending his original assessment of what it takes to turn an ordinary dog into a focused, attentive companion that will never let his partner down.

The work has had other benefits for Mutter, who spends much of his day wrangling dogs inside a small fenced square perhaps the size of a small family room.

"I lost 36 pounds walking around in circles," he said.

Lloyd, who had been vice president of Logan's Heroes Animal Rescue in Lower Milford Township, developed the veterans vocational rehabilitation therapy program with dogs from that center in 2014.

It had been called the Logan's Heroes PAWS Program until Lloyd incorporated as a nonprofit this month — that name remains on some of the literature, including posters for an end-of-month fundraiser at the State Theatre in Easton.

The dogs begin training when they are between 8 and 14 weeks old — what Lloyd calls the "sponge period," when their young brains absorb everything quickly.

The youngest of the current bunch is 10-week-old McGinnis, a black Lab mix named, as all the dogs are, for a fallen soldier. Ross A. McGinnis of Meadville, Crawford County, died in Iraq in 2006 when he threw himself on a grenade and saved four other soldiers. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Veterans applying for the program must have discharge papers and proof of disabilities that affect their independence and ability to engage in the activities of daily life.

For Bryan McCrickerd, a 51-year-old Army veteran from Bethlehem, disability came from back damage he traces to his years as a combat engineer.

He had been looking into getting a service dog when he met Lloyd at a promotional event during a Lehigh Valley IronPigs game at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown.

McCrickerd can walk but uses a wheelchair much of the time because he has poor balance. He said he looks forward to the day he is paired with Phelan, his soon-to-be service dog.

"He's going to help me walk," said McCrickerd, watching Phelan follow the guiding finger of McCrickerd's 15-year-old son, Ryan.

Veterans with physical disabilities, like McCrickerd, must have completed inpatient rehabilitation or be a year removed from their injury. For psychiatric disability, they must be in treatment for at least six months and get an evaluation proving they can have a positive relationship with a dog.

Other factors apply: a strong support system and, for out-of-area applicants, the ability to attend intensive two-week training sessions at the facility.

While the program is free for veterans, it costs money, of course. Lloyd supports it through her business and has received significant donations, including $3,000 from the Coopersburg Fire Company to sponsor McGinnis. She is seeking more, not only to support the current program but to one day expand, perhaps into a full-scale mental health facility for veterans.

"To be able to instill a change in someone else's life inspires me," she said.

For more information on "Tails of Valor, Paws of Honor": http://crittercorralinc.com/about/our-veterans-partnerships/ or by phone at 610-282-2358

daniel.sheehan@mcall.com / 610-820-6598

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