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Service Dogs Get Paws-On Training

By Army Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade

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HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga., June 30, 2017 — We all know the saying, “Dogs are man’s best friend.” They become a part of the family and share in every aspect of the household from holidays to birthdays and even graduations.

On June 26, the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade here hosted a walk-through for a special group of dogs in training to become service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress and the visually impaired.

A guide dog in training sits next to a pilot’s helmet at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. The dog is in its first phase of training, and is learning to socialize and become confident in different environments. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart
A guide dog in training sits next to a pilot’s helmet at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. The dog is in its first phase of training, and is learning to socialize and become confident in different environments. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart
A guide dog in training sits next to a pilot’s helmet at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. The dog is in its first phase of training, and is learning to socialize and become confident in different environments. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart Paws on pilot gear
A guide dog in training sits next to a pilot’s helmet at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. The dog is in its first phase of training, and is learning to socialize and become confident in different environments. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart

“Southeastern Guide Dogs transforms lives by creating and nurturing extraordinary partnerships between people and dogs,” said Kerstin Ramus, from Southeastern Guide Dogs. The national organization employs the latest in canine development and behavior research to train dogs of the highest pedigree for people who are blind and for veterans, she said.

Puppies perched their paws on a variety of pilot gear to become familiar with equipment they may encounter as a service dog for an active-duty service member or veteran.

“We are giving them an opportunity to make positive association with every day, normal life situations, which is the reason why we are meeting at Hunter today -- we do provide veterans with psychiatric service animals,” Ramus said. “We provide service animals to people who can’t see or have seen too much. Some of our [clients] are still on active duty, so the dog very well may be asked to work in this environment.”

Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Hellums, assigned to Bravo Company, 603rd Aviation Support Battalion, his son, Gabriel, and daughter, Aliciona, each care for puppies preparing to become service dog candidates.

“About a year-and-a-half ago, my daughter Aliciona expressed some interest with raising a service dog puppy,” Hellums said. “So we went through the application process, met Kerstin, [were] approved and got Cinnamon, who graduated today.”

Training Process

From birth until about age 2, Cinnamon, like the other dogs in training, went through an education that included socialization skills, basic obedience and house manners. During this period, the dogs' unique aptitudes and abilities become clear, Ramus said, and dogs pursue a "major" based on their personality, health, temperament, trainability and suitability for specific careers.

A majority of the dogs in training pursue a path toward becoming a guide dog, service dog, facility therapy dog or a gifted canine, -- a dog that is hand-selected to serve in law enforcement, provide emotional support to veterans with disabilities, or support a Gold Star Family, she added.

Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Hellums and his son, Gabriel, sit with Kyle, an ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs, at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. Kyle became the ambassador dog after being diagnosed with an injury. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart
Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Hellums and his son, Gabriel, sit with Kyle, an ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs, at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. Kyle became the ambassador dog after being diagnosed with an injury. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart
Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Hellums and his son, Gabriel, sit with Kyle, an ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs, at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. Kyle became the ambassador dog after being diagnosed with an injury. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart Paws on pilot gear
Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Hellums and his son, Gabriel, sit with Kyle, an ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs, at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., June 26, 2017. Kyle became the ambassador dog after being diagnosed with an injury. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kellen Stuart

Kyle is a black Labrador who was selected as an ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs and is now paired with Hellums as he goes through the medical discharge process.

“Kyle was the first official dog I raised on my own,” said Christel-Ann Ramus, a volunteer with Southeastern Guide Dogs. “I learned of the responsibility that comes with raising a guide dog, which means getting up in the morning 20 minutes earlier. I got to experience the challenges of everyday life plus the dog, and it’s a humbling experience.”

“Kyle couldn’t be a full-time service dog because of a possible injury,” Hellums said. “So he was returned back to the area to become the ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Since I am medically retiring he is going to hang out with me, and we’re going to continue to work with together to get through our medical issues as I transition out of the Army.”

People can raise money to name a Southeastern Guide Dog puppy in honor of a loved one.

“I will be getting my third official dog in July,” Christel-Ann Ramus said. “My best friend in high school, Allie Laungh, a nursing major at Georgia Southern University, unfortunately died in a car crash a few years back. She was an organ donor, so parts of her live in others but nobody gets to call her name anymore. I started raising the money two years ago and now I raised enough, so the puppy that I will be raising will be named Laungh, her last name in honor of her. So that somebody will get to call her name as people get to live with parts of her.”