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Courier News 07/12/2012

Canine Battle Buddies bring healing to PTSD veterans

Written byPamela MacKenzie@pammackenziemcj


Left to right Meghann Burke, assistant trainer, Kumiko Matsuo, trainer, Andres Aportela, master trainer, Cliff Vom Nordecker Hof, the German Shepherd, J.T. Gabriel, founder and CEO of Canine Battle Buddies and her daughter, Casey Gabriel, President of K9 Soldiers. (Pamela MacKenzie-staff photo)

FLEMINGTON — Although most people have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how many veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer with it, many civilians still have trouble truly appreciating how difficult it is for these veterans to adjust to everyday life when they come home.

One veteran, Lauren Cust, came home from Afghanistan terrified to live a normal life. To protect herself from snipers, she painted all the windows in her Connecticut home black, much to her civilian husband’s discomfort. She was afraid to go out alone. She struggled with suicide. But when her daughter, Mary, was born last year, Cust knew she had to heal. One option that was open to her was the new Canine Battle Buddies program, started by local resident J.T. Gabriel. The program matches service dogs, all specially trained German Shepherds, to veterans, training the warriors with online college courses and hands-on training to care for their dogs.

“The Veterans Administration doesn’t pay for service dogs,” Gabriel explained, “but they will pay for college credits. So we have a program set up with Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., whereby the veterans can earn 10 college credits in canine care. The first four credits are online courses that veterans can take at their own pace. When they complete those, they come to Pro Canine in Frenchtown, where they get hands-on training with world-renowned dog trainer Andre Aportela, and he matches them to one of his dogs.”

Cust wasn’t sure she wanted a German Shepherd, but she thought if she had to have one, it should be a big, burly male. But as she worked with several of Aportela’s males, the matches didn’t seem to be working out. Then Aportela brought her a smaller female, a dog named Dorothy(Xena Vom Ortenberg). According to Gabriel, Dorothy took one look at baby Mary and fell in love with her, and the rest is, as they say, history.

“Dorothy saved my life,” said Cust. “She gets me out of the house, and now I feel safe going to the park. She wakes me up and licks my face when I have nightmares. When I get nervous, she licks my hands. She makes me feel more secure. I get nervous in line, and she will block people who make me uncomfortable.”

Not long after Dorothy came to live with the Custs, all the black paint came down off the windows.

“My husband was very happy,” Cust said. “And Dorothy not only saved my life. She also saved my daughter’s. Now she will grow up with a normal mom.”

“PTSD dogs are a relatively new thing,” Gabriel said. She herself got interested in matching returning warriors to dogs after sending canine supplies to dogs on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan through her K-9 Soldiers charity for several years.

“We noticed that handlers would rather be down range with a dog than another human being,” she said. She added that handlers often came home with less stress and were better adjusted than other soldiers. She felt sure that dogs could help the PTSD sufferers as well.

“To be a service dog, the dog must do at least three tasks specific to the handler,” Gabriel said. “These dogs may wake the veteran from nightmares, interrupt their thoughts during a flashback, block strangers from getting too close — especially in a crowd, and get them out of the house. And petting a dogs is very calming. The dog is a reassuring presence.”

After interviewing many trainers, Gabriel chose Aportela to train the dogs, not only because he was six miles away, but more importantly because of his intimate understanding of dogs and how he teaches people to think like a dog. She said this training, which is part of the college-credit program, greatly contributes to the success of her Canine Battle Buddies program.

Now, Gabriel and Aportela are taking the program a step further. They are working with members of Congress, including Representative Leonard Lance, to establish a veteran’s canine tracking team that will represent the United States in international competitions. She said tracking comes naturally to combat veterans and the dogs alike, so it’s a constructive activity they really enjoy. And, Aportela has already trained many champion trackers. He will work with the veterans and their service dogs to compete to win. Gabriel wants to open this activity to any interested veteran, and she’s seeking corporate sponsors to raise the $30,000 to $50,000 needed to cover the frequent training and travel expenses involved. Gabriel is encouraged by the interest that she’s already received from a few corporations, but she said they’ll need a lot more support.

“I don’t want the veterans to pay for anything,” she said. “They’ve served this country well, and now it’s our chance to show our appreciation and give back.”

Kumiko was trained Dorothy from puppy to advance trained

Schutzhund USA, Vol.37 January/February 2012


Hosted By North Jersey Schutzhund and Police Association

Helpers Seminar & Classification


The North Jersey Schh and Police Association held a helper seminar and certification with teaching helpers Don Yelle and Charles Ottesen during the weekend of October 22/23. 

North Jersey training director, Andres Arportellas, invited the two teaching helpers based on numerous outstanding reviews he had heard from helpers who had attended a seminar taught by Charles and apprenticed by Don Yelle two years earlier and 300 miles away in New York at the Pine Barrens Club. 

Fortunately, Don and Charles both agreed to teach the seminar and to oversee the certification. 9 helpers participated and of the 9, two women from the club, Kumiko Matsuo and Sondra Rollison attained basic level. Two additional club members, Bob Santos and  Joseph Calabrese, also attained basic. 

Two helpers undertook a 4 hour drive to participate, Matthew and Joshua Roser from the Inner State Sch Club.

Congratulations to all! 

Only two of the nine helpers in attendance had ever worked a trial but this worked out to everyone's advantage as Charles and Don focused on core principles and the basics.

Don and Charles thoughtfully went over the written test questions and a few of the answers came as a surprise to even experienced handlers in attendance.

One spectator observed that "Charles and Don were very personable and very patient with each helper. I was very moved by the fact that they actually remembered the names of two beginner helpers they had instructed at the seminar two years before at the NY Club and asked about their progress."

Congratulations to: Joseph Calabrese, Ante Marijic, Ernest Chambers, Kumiko Matsuo,Joshua Roser, Bob Santos, Sondra Rolison, Bryan Hendricks.

The North Jersey Schh and Police Club would like to thank these two great teaching helpers for their expertise, kindness, attention to detail and enthusiasm. Their ability to make all the helpers feel comfortable enabled all to make the most out of this great event. The teaching helpers and the club certainly did their part to promote the education and development of fledgling helpers that are so essential to the continued success of IPO. Don and Charles are great ambassadors for the Helper Program, obviously teaching for the love of the sport --the best of all intentions.

DHC USA (English)

We're Giving Our All in America


~Kumiko (A native of Nagasaki Prefecture, currently residing in New Jersey) working as a dog trainer at Pet Country Club, She has been responsible for training over 120 dogs the least 3 and half years. Ms. Kumiko has been making habitual use of DHC since she came from Japan along with her mother.

Ever since I was a girl, my dream has been to have a job that was related to animals. While in Japan, I worked in a veterinary hospital. When I saw a TV program on European and American dog training, I thought "that's it! That's what I want!" So in March of 2001, I came to New Jersey to become a dog trainer. For my internship, I was taken in by Pet Country Club (P.C.C.I). P.C.C.I. provides a boarding, grooming, family dog training, police dog training, an academy for people who want to become trainers and training for Schutzhund, which is a European dog sport. In exchange for training, I shampooed dogs, gave the walks that were one of the boarding options and helped out in the P.C.C.I. office. When I came to P.C.C.I. my ability with English was such that I could get by on a trip overseas. In the middle of training , however timing is absolutely necessary. When I did not immediately understand the words that the teacher said there were many times when I lost that timing. When I felt that I couldn't speak English, I would get upset and would sometimes be in tears. I started my training with family dogs when I had been at P.C.C.I. for 5 months. I was taught by using dogs that already had some basic taining, such as how to behave on a leash and how to use a training collar. By December, I was no longer interested in just training family dogs; the family dog teacher, Maureen suggested that I learn Schutzhund training and let me be in charge of her dog "Hara". This is when the owner and head trainer, Andres began to oversee my training. Andres is great with dogs. He can tell what a dog needs and what kind of dog it is just by looking. When I first came to the P.C.C.I. and watched obedience training with Andres and his dog "Asta" it felt like a shock going through my body and I got goose bumps. I thought deep down " I want to be able to move with a dog as one being, just like that." I was able to take the 1st place ribbon with "Hera" at the club competition in May of 2oo2. In July when I was paired up with Andres' "Asta" to participate in the Northeast Regional Championship, I was perplexed as to why Andres thought to match up this dog-- whose movements I had so admired -- with me, who still knew almost nothing; I was awed. There were a variety of reactions from other students. While there were some people who were pleased for me, there were other who asked why a student like me should be entered. From that day forward, Andres started to do traninig work with me every day. Even though "Asta" had already been trained, she would not respond to my commands at all. Andres's voice would start to get progressively louder and every time that he cautioned me with "No! Not like that!! Move faster! Feel with the body!" I would get completely flustered. When training was over and I returned to my room, I would be mad at myself for not being good enough. There were days when I thought that I couldn't move the way I wanted to. On those days, I would fall into thinking " I will never get there." and I would cry all night. In spite of that, Andres would not give up on pairing me with "Asta" and continued training "Asta" and me. At the end of September, I competed at the Northeast Regional Schutzhund Championship in Washington, D.C. Even though I did not consider "Asta" and me to be a perfect pair Andres worried about us as if we were his daughters participating in their first contest. Strangely enough, I wasn't worried and I started the competition with the vague feeling that "Once it starts the only thing to do is to succeed." All 3 of the phases ended and I relaxed and talked with people. I smiled and thought that they were joking when they said that I had an excellent run and that it was great. I thought that only applied to people whose dogs were called to participate in the closing ceremony. When they started to announce the results, I was in 2nd place--and had missed 1st place by only 1 point!! I was completely surprised. In June of 2004, I finished in 4th place when I competed in the National Obedience Championship with my own dog "Esta" The character of each dog is different. Even with training there are days when I realize that I still lack experience. I, however, have a new self- confidence. I won the top prize at a national competition at SchH3, the highest level of Schutzhund training with a dog that I raised from a puppy.

~ The passion to go after a childhood dream is a wonderful thing all by itself. While people who are granted that dream are very happy, we think the truth is that just being able to chase after that dream makes one happy. We're rooting for Kumiko's "Puppy" to win the prize at the national competition.

"Together with my dogs, I'm making my dream come true"

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