Photo courtesy Rick Cordes - Enjoying canine companions, St. Joseph County veterans gather on the courthouse lawn to celebrate the pairing of Marine veteran Doug Porter, left with Labrador retriever Sierra. Center, Army vet Nate Schemenauer stands with golden retriever Oscar, whom he might be paired with, and, right, canine trainer Nicole Adamski handles Labrador retriever November, who’s been adopted by Army veteran Laura Riley, all through a special county Veterans Affairs initiative.

Dogs paired with veterans in SJC

Special program brings comfort, assistance, companionship

CENTREVILLE — November 16 was a big day for Marine veteran Doug Porter. Arriving at the St. Joseph County courthouse, Porter was greeted by Veterans Affairs director Stoney Summey, canine trainer Nicole Adamski and Sierra, the black Ladrador retriever companion dog who was prepped and ready to begin a new life with Porter as part of a pioneering veterans program.

“Today’s move in day,” Adamski said, indicating that the last step in a training and pairing process was complete, paving the way for Sierra and Porter to begin a mutually beneficial partnership. “It’s an exciting day for both of us,” Adamski said.

Also on hand for the unification day event was Army veteran Laura Riley and her companion dog November, and Nate Schemenauer, Army veteran, who came for an “interview” with Oscar, a golden retriever who, potentially, could be paired with Schemenauer following training.

Porter is one of ten St. Joseph County veterans thus far to have been provided with a companion dog as part of a program initiated by Summey that aims to help with veterans’ needs while providing them with a faithful companion.

“It’s free for veterans,” Summey said.

The Michigan Veterans Trust Fund supports the St. Joseph County ESA (Emotional Support Animal) canine initiative with grants. “The state contacts us (county veterans programs.) They want us to find creative ways to serve veterans,” Summey said.

St. Joseph County’s canine program evolved from an initial effort to pair veterans with locally sourced companion dogs. “I learned a lot from trial and error,” Summey said.

When that approach proved challenging, “we found another source,” Summey said. That source is a Grand Rapids-based program that provides the dogs and initial training.

“The dogs are bred, raised, and trained for this work,” Summey said. Those dogs designated best suited for county vets are “Level 2” dogs. They are more “laid back” than Level 1 dogs, which are quite energetic and are more appropriate for police and detection work.

The first dog in the county veterans program arrived in 2019. His name is Bravo, and Summey reports that he’s “an event dog,” aptly prepared to make appearances at such things as kayak outings and VA bingo sessions.

Bravo belongs to a courthouse employee military veteran and is very much a people person pet. “He’s a cuddler,” Summey said.

When a vet is identified as a possible canine recipient, work begins to determine if such a placement is appropriate. “We do an animal history check,” Summey said. “We do a house visit. We make sure the vet can financially support (a dog).”

If a green light is given, the focus goes north to the dog training program. Dogs there are presented and reviewed by Adamski. “We try to match personalities,” Summey said. “We sometimes test 20 dogs a day. They know us so well that they have them ready.”

Initial work with the dogs includes time in Grand Rapids area prisons, helping the dogs acclimate to a variety of people and be classified according to temperament and abilities. After several months of training, an identified dog is ready to travel south to St. Joseph County and undergo intensive work by Adamski, owner of Pawsitively K-9 of Sturgis.

“She’s unbelievable,” Summey said. “She can teach a dog to turn lights on and off.”

“She’ll get to know the dog for four weeks and train the dog for whatever specialty it’ll be used for. Then she brings in the vet and trains the dog with the vet.”

Summey detailed some of the successes that county-based vet dogs have achieved. “We trained (one) for “shed” hunting,” (locating antlers), and that dog, which is still in training, has won a national championship, Summey reports. Another placement helped bring a secluded vet out into the world. “It gave her a purpose,” Summey said.

Then there’s the courthouse dog “Juliet,” whose presence is welcomed throughout the building where office treats await her many visits. Not placed with a vet as a companion dog, Juliet brings joy wherever she pawses. “She’s the most popular employee here!” Summey asserts. Juliet will be ready to help comfort a child during an upcoming criminal trial, should that child be called to testify.

Veterans’ dogs are available for community events or activities. For instance, one dog is specially prepared for visits to nursing homes. “She loves that work and the vet that has her loves it too,” Summey said.

Additional dogs will be placed as the initiative moves forward, with two currently in training with Adamski. Summey says that as long as funding holds, placements will be made.

Summey will continue using his military alphabet system in naming the dogs, with “O” for Oscar and “S” for Sierra currently taken.

St. Joseph County veterans interested in the canine program can contact Summey and the St. Joseph County Veterans Affairs office at 269-467-5512.

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