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A friend's paw: Veterans celebrate with their service dogs

The Florida-based nonprofit that has partnered highly trained service dogs with 21 local military veterans will break ground in October on a multimillion-dollar dog breeding and training facility in Robinson, Washington County.


One of Pittsburgh’s highest profile military veterans has been hired as general contractor. RBVetCo is owned and operated by Rocky Bleier, a veteran of the Vietnam War and Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers teams.


When the facility opens at the end of 2019, Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc. will be able to double the number of trained dogs it places with veterans each year — from 50 to 100 dogs.


Carol Borden, who founded Guardian Angels in 2009, trains the dogs in Williston, Fla. There are 80 dogs and puppies — most of them German shepherds — in that program at any given time. About 20 percent are homeless dogs taken from animal shelters. Training each dog costs $22,000-$25,000 and takes 18 months. Veterans pay nothing.


Local Vietnam veterans Tony Accamando and John Piazza have raised $1.3 million in three years through their nonprofit, Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans. That’s enough for 60 dogs, and it’s one of the reasons Guardian Angels is starting its first satellite near Pittsburgh.

In Florida Ms. Borden has 32 employees, including 10 dog trainers. The Washington County facility is expected to need a similar number of employees, as well as volunteer “puppy huggers,” she said.


Ms. Borden’s announcement came Tuesday at the Duquesne University Union Ballroom, where a ceremonial Passing of the Leash ceremony was held. Mr. Bleier was the keynote speaker and posed for photos with four veterans and their Guardian Angels dogs. The dogs and vets were briefly separated so that Ms. Borden could ceremonially pass the leashes to the veterans, who gave brief statements about how the dogs had changed their lives.

Tim Kellermann of Belle Vernon said he was seldom able to leave his home for 10 years because of post-traumatic stress disorder and other lingering trauma following a 13-month Army deployment in Afghanistan. He was teamed with Pilot one year ago, “and I’m doing much better now,” he said. Pilot wakes him up at night before he has one of the nightmares that used to rob him of sleep. In the daytime, she calms him during flashbacks and panic attacks, “and I’m able to go out and be more social,” he explained.


The architect for the Washington County training facility is AEWorks, whose president is a veteran, Michael Cherock. The 102-acre Washington County campus will also “offer a very comprehensive paid apprentice program that will assist in job training and veteran transition challenges,” Ms. Borden said.


Vietnam veteran Jack Wagner, a former Pittsburgh city council member and state auditor general, will help with fundraising. For more information on Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc., go to www.MedicalServiceDogs.org or write to 3591 Ridgeway Drive, Bethel Park, PA 15102.


Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1953.





#veterans #servicedogs

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