By Betsy Kozak-Howard, ACC-Aberdeen Proving Ground, MarylandMarch 9, 2017
"It feels good to give back and do something positive," said Patrick Siemon, a procurement analyst with the Army Contracting Command -- Aberdeen Proving Ground, referring to his volunteer work with Warrior Canine Connection. Last year, Siemon discovered WCC on the internet and applied to be a "puppy petter."
According to Siemon, he volunteers at a WCC facility in Boyds, Maryland where canines are bred and trained to perform as service dogs in support of wounded warriors. The benefits of the program are two-fold. In addition to supplying service dogs to qualified veterans, the program also encourages service members and veterans with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury to train service dogs for fellow combat veterans. Through this training, Siemon learned that the connection between the dogs and service member/veteran dog trainers helped with symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
"I received a one-hour orientation to understand the duties of a puppy petter," Siemon recalled. "After the orientation, I signed up for one-hour petting opportunities. It's important that the puppies are socialized in order to learn to adapt to a variety of new people and situations. Through the process, puppies learn to trust new environments and human interactions.
The puppies can be viewed on explore.org, which carries a 24-hour live stream of WCC's puppies, until the time they are placed with a puppy parent, who is responsible for training and raising the puppy to become a service dog. People from all over the world watch WCC's puppy cam and it is how many of their loyal supporters found out about WCC. There is even a group of people who call themselves WCC's extreme puppy watchers. Many of the EPWs travel from out of state to witness WCC's annual graduation of service dogs, and celebrate the service dogs being partnered with their "forever warrior."
WCC works with two breeds of dogs -- Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. Siemon volunteers regularly to work with the puppies at the facility and he spent about two months working as a puppy petter. As time progressed, Siemon became a puppy sitter, which involves taking a service dog in training when the assigned puppy parent is unavailable or out of town. When Siemon works as a sitter, he is responsible for taking the service dog in training everywhere he goes.
"I had to interview for the puppy sitter position and once selected, I attended a seven week course that taught me the proper training techniques and how to care for a service dog in training," said Siemon. "The training helped me get to know the dogs, understand training techniques and learn the different commands."
Last November, Siemon had his first puppy sitting job with a Labrador retriever named 'Lauren.' Many of the WCC service dogs are named after former or current service members, and Lauren was named after a service member who was injured in combat, Army Sgt. Lauren Montoya.
According to Siemon, Montoya was injured in Afghanistan when an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] detonated by the vehicle she was riding in, which led to her leg being amputated below the knee. She has since competed in the Invictus Games and was declared fit for duty to continue her service as an active duty Soldier.
"The first puppy sitting visit with Lauren was for five days and she went everywhere with me," Siemon pointed out. "I even took her to work with me and she slept under my desk -- Lauren was so well behaved. Through WCC, I've learned a great deal about working with service dogs and the proper way to interact with them. I must use a strong authoritative voice when giving a command and say 'yes' in a positive voice to give reinforcement. I definitely loved my puppy sitting experience and I even took Lauren to a fancy restaurant for dinner with my family."
The dogs receive extensive training at WCC and as they progress through the program, they receive rank starting from private to general. The dogs even learn to salute. Although Siemon is attached to Lauren, he understands that she is a working dog and one day she may be called upon to save a life Siemon added.
Siemon retold a story that was presented in his training about a service member who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"An active duty Marine spoke to us about his traumatic story in combat when his vehicle hit an IED and how he had suffered from post-traumatic stress as a result," Siemon recalled. "The Marine credited his work with WCC, training service dogs for other veterans, with saving his life and his marriage."
Siemon continues to work as a puppy sitter and hopes to be a puppy parent one day. As a puppy parent he will raise a service dog for approximately two years before the dog graduates from the program and is placed with a veteran.
"I've definitely learned a lot about working with dogs and the connections that dogs and humans share," commented Siemon. "Knowing that I'm making a difference with veterans and their families is extremely rewarding."
The WCC puppies provided Siemon with a renewed sense of duty and he looks forward to watching the WCC service dogs in training that he works with grow up to become service dogs. In fact, he announced recently that "a new litter, Jessi's Courage Litter, was born and there are four girls and four boys."
Siemon concluded by expressing gratitude toward ACC-APG and his co-workers for their support in the workplace with his puppy sitting responsibilities.