A few short months ago, Larry McManus stopped in to see his banker, Jeanine Mallar, in the Machias office of Machias Savings Bank. Jeanine knew Larry well enough. She knew something was wrong. She could see it in his face.
She asked, and Larry, a military veteran who now battles with PTSD, shared that he had just lost his longtime sidekick and trusty companion, a boxer named Dozer. Now, he was lost.
Jeanine, who serves as a financial services officer and has been with Machias Savings Bank for almost 20 years, is also a dog lover. And at that moment, she unleashed a quiet effort to get Larry a new dog.
“I wanted to get him a service dog,” she shared, “a dog that was professionally trained to help him specifically.” So Jeanine reached out to Kathy Hecht, founder and director of Salute of Service, a non-profit organization that trains and provides service dogs for Maine Veterans.
While SOS often works with a vet’s own dog, Hecht, who is an adjunct professor at UMM and a Blue Star mother of two veterans, saw an opportunity to start with a puppy - a blank canine canvas if you will. So she reached out to Linda Smith, owner of Port Side Labradors in Machiasport. As luck would have it, Smith had a fresh and frisky litter of labradors sired by their own UKC Champion, whose name is quite simply Bruce. Together they chose a male that Smith said, “inherited his dad’s sweet, laid back temperament, pure loyalty, and smarts.”
Larry named him Gunner. “The guys said I had to name him something military sounding,” he explained, referring to the vets where Larry volunteers at “The House In The Woods”, a military and family retreat in Lee. “Larry gives back so much to other vets,” Jeanine pointed out. “I knew we had to figure out a way to give this precious gift to him.”
Larry and Gunner have been diligently training for months now as part of the Salute of Service program at UMM. “It’s a pretty intense commitment, for everyone involved,” said Hecht, who hopes to graduate close to fifty teams in 2016. Dog and owner teams train for 120 hours and must pass a battery of tests showing proficiency in three major areas - basic obedience and socialization, veteran task specialization, and public access training. When they graduate, Gunner will be a nationally certified Service Dog.
Generally quiet and reserved, Larry beams when asked about his now not-so-new best friend. “He’s exceptional,” he gushes proudly. “I would be surely lost without him. It is unreal what a dog can do for PTSD. And, he’s not a one-person dog either. He loves my wife Dawn. Waits for her to come home every single day. The thing is…he knows when it’s time to work.”
When the gift of service runs full circle, it takes a whole lot of hands, and four very important paws.