CHELMSFORD, Mass. (AP)- Emma, a black Lab, and Rocky, a yellow Lab, have both been saved before. Now it's their turn to help save someone.
Both dogs, as part of Chelmsford-based Operation Delta Dog, will soon be paired with area veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The dogs will be able to turn on light switches in dark homes, alert their owners to someone approaching from behind or notice a potential seizure, said Carolyn Barney, who has been training the dogs at her Groton home.
Rocky, about 2 years old, was a stray from Indiana who was in a shelter only two months ago. Within days, he'll be paired with a Marine Corps vet in Haverhill who served in Afghanistan.
Emma, about 1 year old and until recently crowded into a busy shelter, will go in a few weeks to a Vietnam veteran in Derry, N.H.
"It's all happening, which is very exciting," said Trisha Blanchet, founder and president of Operation Delta Dog, which last year received $10,000 in seed money from the Merrimack Valley Sandbox program.
After up to two months of training with Barney, Emma and Rocky will be able to help the veterans - both of whom wished to remain anonymous - with tasks that PTSD can make difficult and be a companion that may also help them emotionally.
Emma, who is more energetic and playful than the calmer Rocky, will be able to search through a home to make sure no one is inside when her owner is returning home. She will help fight anxiety by alerting her owner when someone approaches from behind or walking ahead of her when someone is approaching from the front.
"She's a dog who wants to know what's behind her, so it's natural for her," said Barney, a dog trainer for 35 years who also leads classes.
Rocky will help his veteran by sensing low blood sugar, which Barney said is detectable by scent, or when a seizure may be coming, which might also be detectable by scent. He will also be able to help with balance issues by picking up dropped items.
Barney is also training the dogs to sense when their owners may be having a nightmare, then learning to turn on lights to gently wake them, then cuddle next to them for reassurance.
"A best friend is the best healing," Barney said, describing the emotional and psychological benefit of well-trained dogs.
Blanchet, a mother of two and daughter of an Army veteran, started Operation Delta Dog after reading about how veterans with PTSD improved with service dogs. She said she was bothered that no such programs existed in the Lowell area.
"Then it just occurred to me that I could do it," she said.
Last fall, she won first place in an entrepreneurship contest, netting her $10,000. The Merrimack Valley Sandbox program is run by the Deshpande Foundation and based at the Merrimack Valley Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell.
Blanchet spent about six months developing relationships with veterans at the Veterans Affairs centers in Manchester, N.H., and Bedford, Mass., and learning about their needs.
"We sort of looked at each person's story and each dog's story and made the best matches," she said.
The program, initially called Operation Canine, has barely enough money to cover expenses for training Emma and Rocky, however, and Blanchet is now looking for ways to obtain more funding. She's soliciting donations and offering benefits like "proud supporter" posters, or displaying a company name or person's name on a dog's service vest.
Barney has already had both dogs train with their future owners and get used to their homes - and, in one case, a cat that will become a roommate. They will also continue working together for a few months after Emma and Rocky move in with their owners.
Barney said she'll miss the dogs but will also be happy to see them go.
"It is and it isn't" sad, she said. "But they're going to a 'forever home' and that's what they need."
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