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Nonprofit helping veterans and first responders one pup at a time

Published: Mar. 14, 2021 at 9:41 AM EDT
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BENNINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Asking for help can be hard, especially for veterans and first responders.

While reaching out for help is becoming more and more common, 22 veterans a day take their own lives.

This week, our Elissa Borden met with one woman working to stop that from happening, one paw at a time.

At 114 Gage Street in Bennington, an unassuming building used to house a karate studio and a pizza parlor. But behind the glass door now sits Vermont Paws and Boots, a nonprofit providing so much more than what meets the eye.

“The unique part about Vermont Paws and Boots is I assist not only veterans but first responders. Whether it’s firefighters, EMTs, police officers, ER nurses, ambulance drivers, anything that deals with the public in a trauma situation on a daily basis, I’ll assist,” explained Michelle LeBlanc, the director and lead K-9 trainer for this service dog training program.

She began the program in 2015, running it part time until retiring from the Vermont State Police in 2019. She says Vermont had no service dog training programs at that time.

“One of the things that I tell people is what we see can never be unseen, and it really affects you,” she explained.

We met up with students in her sixth class, but the first in Bennington. LeBlanc used to run her operation out of Chittenden County but moved south to be more accessible for those in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

That cuts commute time down significantly for Trish Rafter of Rutland.

“I didn’t think I’d ever need a service dog, and when I first had the surgery, it wasn’t really one of the things that crossed my mind,” Rafter said.

Her lift-assist dog, Cricket, is in the middle of training to help this amputee find a little extra freedom.

“I’m excited to have her, I’m excited to have activities that I cannot currently do. I want to walk trails. I’ll never be a mountain climber, never was. And if I slip and trip and fall or stumble, I’ll be able to grab her vest and she’ll be able to assist me back to my feet,” Rafter said.

The ride is a bit longer for Army National Guard veteran Timothy Gariboldi, who commutes from Barre to train his lift-assist dog.

“This is Gracie, she’s a rescue dog from Kentucky. And I’ve never had an issue with her being aggressive at all. It’s like the perfect dog for me -- instant connection,” he explained. “It’s a great program and anybody in need of a service dog should definitely look into this program.”

LeBlanc maintains it’s not the quantity of service dogs her program generates, but the quality. She has 17 graduates, and still requires all of them to check in with her periodically like they did this week.

“A lot of my students actually get off all their medication while they’re in my program because the power of this dog, being able to sense those emotions is huge and it helps people gain their confidence to get back into the world. One of my students didn’t leave his house for almost three years. He just did a cross-country trip this last summer with his dog,” LeBlanc said.

It doesn’t come without a lot of time and energy, these classes take about a year. That time may be cut down in the future, though.

LeBlanc plans to build a large, permanent facility, with housing for students to stay on campus. Because they’re a nonprofit, they’ll have to raise the capital. But everything for the students is 100% free.

“They all have to be in counseling if they have PTSD. I get updates from their counselors. They have to take written tests, homework assignments, keep training logs, so it’s pretty intense. But it shows when they graduate and the confidence that we see in these teams is just amazing,” LeBlanc said.

Donations can be made on the Vermont Paws and Boots website, or by mailing a check to:

Vermont Paws and Boots -- PO Box 257, Bennington, VT 05201.

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