Therapy dogs aid first responders, veterans

The nonprofit, Hero Pups, matches canines with first responders and veterans who suffer from PTSD

By Hadley Barndollar
Portsmouth Herald

STRATHAM, N.H. — It is no coincidence the organizer of nonprofit Hero Pups, Laura, has the last name Barker.

When her son was shot in Afghanistan in 2011, Barker said, she had an "ah-ha" moment, realizing that pairing therapy dogs with veterans and first responders was what she was meant to do for the rest of her life.

Hero Pups, based out of Stratham and Exeter, became a certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit in May after Barker had been previously placing dogs privately. The organization is 100 percent volunteer.

"I couldn't find any places with the same goals," Barker said. "I had a politician tell me, 'Why don't you become the pilot for this?' So with a lot of people standing behind me, I led the charge."

This year, the organization has placed nine therapy dog companions with veterans or first responders. To be eligible to receive a dog, a veteran must have left the service with honorable standing and be seeking some form of assistance such as counseling. In addition to veterans, Barker also works with firemen and police officers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder who are also receiving support treatment.

Barker spent quite a bit of time in the hospital during her son's recovery where she witnessed one soldier's exposure to a therapy dog.

"There was this one SI (seriously injured) who had been giving everyone a hard time," Barker said. "He'd just come out of combat. A lady walked in with this therapy dog and I watched this kid sit up and this dog just got him going. I was like 'OK, I can do this.' Now I know this is where I was supposed to be."

Barker said Hero Pups is very selective, preferring mixed breeds as they tend to be healthier.

"There's a lot of profiling, testing," she said. "You're looking for that dog that is stable and has the right temperament."

Former Epping firefighter Jeff Prince, who did two tours in Iraq, met his companion, Layla, a Pyrenees/Newfoundland mix, four months ago. Prince found Hero Pups online and submitted an application, giving Barker a rundown of his situation.

"When I met Laura, it was like meeting an old friend, instantly right off the bat," Prince said. "Opening up to her was simple."

Prince said when he returned from his second tour in Iraq, "It was not a good time."

"My daughter was 11 months old when I left," Prince said. "I had trouble reintegrating. I was self-medicating and all that stuff, basically withdrawing from everybody except for my battle buddies."

Prince said in working through his struggles one thing stood out. "I've always had an attachment to animals," he said. "When I met Laura at the Fire Department and I saw that puppy, I said, 'That's it.'

Layla is now 7 months old, sporting a long pink tongue and a very loving demeanor.

"Over the past few months she's been a great companion," Prince said. "She doesn't judge, she doesn't care, it's unconditional. She doesn't care where I've been or what I've done. She's a gentle giant."

Rick Villeneuve, a retired Green Beret, and his wife, Heidi, are proud "parents" of Frank, a Pyrenees/Newfoundland/lab mix. Frank is 6 months old and already 83 pounds.

Villeneuve, originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, and now of Ashland, saw Hero Pups featured on the Channel 5 news. His wife called the organization and they went through the panel process to be selected to receive a dog.

"They will train dogs for the recipients as service dogs, but Heidi couldn't wait," Villeneuve said. "They breed them for their temperament. Everybody's like, 'I've never seen a dog that good before.' Frank's great with babies, infants, children, people in general and all other kinds of dogs."

Villeneuve served in multiple war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He lived in downtown Baghdad, as well as Kabul.

"I used to dream in Arabic," he said.

Villeneuve, 43, said he'll likely require two hip replacements and two knee replacements. In addition, he experienced PTSD after returning from war.

Frank is like a child to Villeneuve and his wife, he said. "We love him," he said. "We even have a baby monitor. He has his own bedroom, his own couch, his own crate. It's like we have a child."

Barker will be taking care of Frank for the Villeneuves while they travel for the holidays.

Villeneuve said Hero Pups is "just full of really good people."

"They just do really good things out of the kindness of their heart," he said. "Frank has helped us out quite a bit."

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