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Vietnam veteran Robert Rapone remembers the day he met his service dog, Caspar. It was Rapone’s first time on Long Island — he arrived at America’s VetDogs in Smithtown this summer from his home in Rochester, not really knowing what to expect. He had been on the VetDogs waiting list for nearly two years.
Dog trainer Valerie Cramer entered the room with a pudgy yet poised yellow labrador-golden retriever mix.
“That’s something I really can’t explain,” Rapone remembered. “Val walked in, and he was the first one she brought in. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, he’s a biggie. He’s not coming to me.’ But Val comes right up to me and says, ‘Bob, this is Caspar. This is your dog.’”
Rapone took a breath: “Second to having a child. This is what it was.”
America’s VetDogs was founded in 2003. The organization trains service dogs for veterans “of all eras,” according to service dog program director Ken Kirsch.
“We have veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan and everything in between,” Kirsch said. “That’s one thing I’m really proud of at VetDogs, is that we’re not only post-9/11.”
America’s VetDogs trains their pups for veterans with any kind of disability. There are several different areas that the dogs can specialize in, including seizure response, post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss and combat stress control.
“We’re not really that wrapped up with what the disability is, because we’re going to custom-train the dog anyway,” Kirsch said.
Caspar works with Rapone on his PTSD and physical impairments. Rapone underwent back-to-back tours in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 as part of the airborne paratrooper unit. He said that he and Caspar hit it off right away.
“He’s all boy,” Rapone said. “He loves to run. His walk is a little faster than mine, so if there is a problem — which there isn’t — I’ve gotta have him slow down a little bit. We’re working on that because I have a hip problem, so I walk a little slower… He’s learning to walk my pace.”
America’s VetDogs breeds golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and crosses between the two. As a mix, Caspar has the stature of a faithful Labrador and the playfulness of a golden retriever. And even though he is just a year old, he’s already had an extraordinary life.
From eight weeks of age to 15-months old, VetDogs live in prisons along the East Coast. There, the inmates are trained by VetDogs staff and teach the pups the three foundations of service dog work: Retrieving, tugging and pushing.
Caspar lived in Enfield Correctional Facility in Enfield, Connecticut five days a week. On the weekends, the dogs stay with a puppy raiser so they can learn how to ride in a car, live in a house, and go out in public. Caspar lived with Cathy McCloud, who calls him “a little angel.”
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“Caspar was just a sweetheart,” she said. “He really just wanted to please. He was very gentle and very friendly, and he wanted to do whatever I wanted him to do. We used to kid around that he was the perfect dog.”
She added that Caspar’s best friend in the prison was a German shepherd. “They used to run around and play all the time,” McCloud said. “Caspar loved to go work. He would just love to go out, and everyone always fell in love with him. That was always the way it was.”
From there, Caspar came to Smithtown to continue studying on the VetDogs campus. The dogs are assigned to a professional trainer, and they test the dogs to find their potential. Within four months, the dogs are matched up with their veterans.
“We match them up depending on how big the person is and what their ability is,” Kirsch said. “We match up physicality with the person and the dog, and then we match up temperament and lifestyle.”
America’s VetDogs covers the cost of transportation for all participating veterans, and houses them in a residence hall on campus. According to Kirsch, between the eight veterans in this class, they had a combined 117 years of service. They all arrived toward the end of August and got to work.
Caspar and Rapone trained together in class for 8-10 hours a day. During one recent training session — with the VetDogs graduation ceremony just around the corner — the dogs worked on tasks such as picking up items, like eyeglass cases and credit cards, and opening doors by pushing an activation switch.
The dogs also took on a “distraction course,” during which they walk with their veterans around a grassy field. Trainers stood around the perimeter bearing treats and toys, and sometimes leaves and branches. Really, anything you can find in a park. The objective is to keep the pups focused on the task at paw: Taking care of their veteran.
Rapone said Caspar is good at this. They walked the course together side by side at an even pace. There was just one caveat.
“His nemesis are balls,” Rapone said with a big laugh. “So I’m working on that with the training and all, and it’s going good.”
Following the distraction course and some playtime, the veterans and their pups took a lunch break. The meals at America's VetDogs are all prepared by an in-house chef. Needless to say, there were smiles all around as the big group walked together to the cafeteria.
Although Rapone enjoyed his time at America’s VetDogs — even exchanging phone numbers with the veterans in his class — he was excited to head back home with Caspar.
“Our bathroom and bedrooms are on the second floor, so I have to climb steps every day ... We’re training him to go up the steps,” he said. “We say ‘wait,’ then ‘step,’ and he’s good at that. I think everything’s going to be great; I really do.”
At the end of the program, the veterans got to meet the weekend puppy raisers at graduation. McCloud took her seat next to Rapone, and gave him several photos of Caspar as a puppy.
“I met Bob, and my reaction was that [he and Caspar] are so similar!” McCloud laughed. “Because Bob seemed to be this very gentle, sweet man, and I thought to myself, these two are a perfect match. They were hugging each other, and they’re just going to love being together.”
Rapone can certainly attest to that. “Having the chance to come down here is really one of the high points of my life,” he said. “I’m very serious about that, because you go through so much. I can’t wait to get him back home with the family.”