WHITE CITY — As if on cue, Smokie sat up and barked in unison Friday with those clapping in the theater at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics.
It was as though the dog understood what Dahna Dow Osmus, a lead case manager and psychiatric nurse at SORCC, was saying as she spoke about the challenges of developing the unique Heeling for Heroes program she started.
"The facility had been willing to take a risk and be progressive and do things no other VA facility had done," Osmus said, noting the program would not have succeeded without the help of countless people. "That was pretty awesome."
Of course, Smokie, a handsome German shepherd mix with a bit of Labrador retriever thrown in, may have been barking because he was about to graduate. He was one of three pooches graduating in a short ceremony after nearly a year of training that began last July.
In the program, residential veterans at SORCC help train homeless puppies from shelters to eventually become psychiatric-service dogs. The canines' mission is then to help outpatient veterans who are battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
Joining Smokie in the graduation was Sam, another German shepherd mix, and Zippy, who appears to be part chihuahua and terrier. All three dogs are youngsters.
Since July, each pooch has had its own crate in which to sleep in the veterans' living quarters at SORCC. Supplies to feed, groom, play, train and clean up after the canines were provided.
The $12,000 program was funded by Osmus' brother, Mark Dow, who lives in New York City and Laguna Beach, Calif. He has committed to funding the program for another year, Osmus noted.
The training is completed in phases, with veterans serving as trainers while other veterans wait in the wings as dog sitters.
As the veterans help raise the dogs for other veterans, they relearn delayed gratification, anger management, frustration tolerance, patience and collaboration to help them overcome life's challenges, said longtime dog owner Osmus.
"I'd like to thank all the veterans who have been involved with training these dogs," she said. "For those of you who have ever trained a dog, you know it is a commitment. These guys were with their dogs 24/7. The dogs were never unsupervised.
"And when I found these dogs in the shelters, they didn't have names," she added. "These veterans started from scratch."
All the dogs have been trained to do psychiatric-service tasks, she explained.
"A lot of times people with PTSD have a lot of anxiety about walking into a room first," she said. "All these dogs have been trained to go into the room first and search it."
Helping Osmus in the training part of the program was veteran dog trainer Cary Voorhees, owner of Cooperative Canines in the Applegate Valley.
"Cary uses communication and cooperation to make things happen," Osmus observed. "That's a huge paradigm to live our lives by."
During the ceremony, the dogs went through their paces, demonstrating their ability to take commands. Sam even did a commando trick by edging forward on his belly.
"Working with Sam has taught me so much," said veteran Brian Hlousek. "Not only about dogs, but about myself, both positive and negative. I'll take the knowledge with me wherever I go."
Brady Norman, 31, a former member of the Oregon Army National Guard who helped serve as Sam's trainer since late last summer, agreed.
"It was good for my rehabilitation program," Norman says. "I'm going to get my own dog. I don't want to have a dog that is out of control. But I can train him. I'm looking forward to that.
"Sam communicates really well," he adds. "He'll tell you if there is somebody he doesn't know on the other side of the door. He is so good."
Former Marine Michael Smith, a native of New York, has been Zippy's primary handler, working with Army veteran Evyn Balog, 42.
"He helped me as much as I helped him," Smith said. "This is a great program for veterans."
Smokie and Zippy have been placed in homes with veterans; Sam is still waiting to be placed in his "forever" home, Osmus said.
Sams Valley residents John and Kristi Soule were at the ceremony to pick up Smokie. Both Army veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD. John is a veteran of Afghanistan. Kristi served in Iraq.
"My youngest son was with me when I first met the three dogs, and Smokie was the calmest one," she said, referring to their son Johnnie, age 2. "It showed me he would be a good family dog."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email@example.com.