When Christopher Quirin of Manhasset first met young Layla last month, it was love at first sight.
The 8-month-old, 45-pound Labrador mix bounced into Quirin's lap, placed her furry head on his chest and it was then, the Vietnam War veteran said, he knew it was going to be a special friendship. “I said 'We are in love!'” Quirin recalled with a smile.
Layla and Quirin, 70, became the first Long Island pair selected as part of a new program aimed at bringing companion canines into the lives of veterans suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, known as PTSD. The Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation and Operation Warrior Shield partnered in the spring to bring the program to veterans who need it.
Quirin was a 18-year-old Army infantryman when, on what was supposed to be a day off near the city of Tam Ky in Quang Nam province, he went out on a patrol and was severely wounded by a “bouncing Betty” mine, a device which detonates about 3 feet off the ground and sprays shrapnel in all directions. Quirin was hit multiple times, lost much of the sight in one eye and had serious bone fractures and other wounds, he said.
After spending months in recovery, Quirin said he made it back home with a Purple Heart and was able to recover and go on to carve out a career in marketing and advertising in New York City.
Quirin said mental health experts eventually determined he was suffering from PTSD, a condition that has stayed with him to this day and which impacts an estimated tens of thousands of other veterans from conflicts stretching from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Although Quirin has continued his marketing career, he said he still feels unpredictable bouts of anxiety.
“The Fourth of July is probably the worst day of the year for me,” Quirin said in an interview as he sat with Layla in a grassy Manhasset park near his home. “You are sitting in a jungle at night and you are watching tracer rounds go off — it is a lot like fireworks. There is an instinctive fear about what you are going to come up against the next day.”
Layla’s role in Quirin’s life and by extension in the life of his wife, Patrice, is to serve as a psychological buffer for life’s daily problems.
“Dogs have a really good sense on what your mood is like, they are very attuned to you … just having her near me [when] I get anxious, it takes the anxiety away," Quirin said.
For Pat Deshong, director of the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation, the nascent program received a boost recently when a fundraiser for the shelter brought in $10,000, which she hopes can help train three or four more companion dogs for veterans. Training, done by a special trainer at the shelter, can cost up to $5,000 for each dog and involves getting them to respond to certain commands and being comfortable with a leash, Deshong said.
Based on her years of experience working with animals, Deshong said dogs can be very healing and stabilizing for veterans who have suffered the trauma of combat.
“They actually transform lives of veterans because now the veterans have a dog that stays by their side and can sense if [they] are anxious, which is typical of PTSD,” Deshong said.
Applicants for the Southampton Animal Shelter program are first vetted by the nonprofit veterans support organization Operation Warrior Shield, and then paired with a dog after the animal has been trained at the Southampton facility, Deshong said.
As previously reported in Newsday, Long Island is the center of another companion dog program run by the Medford-based Canine Companions for Independence, which over the years has placed scores of companion dogs with children and adults with disabilities, including veterans with PTSD.
Ed Schloeman, a retired Marine Corps chief master sergeant from Brooklyn and head of Operation Warrior Shield, said the Southampton program is aimed at helping to heal the hidden wounds of veterans through what he called the “unconditional love” of animals. Schloeman said he hoped to expand the program to provide retired first responders with companion dogs as well.
In Quirin’s case, Layla moves closer to him when she senses his anxiety, Deshong noted.
Layla is also something of a Facebook personality. Over the years, Quirin was featured in Newsday stories about the children of Ireland who were separated from their single birth mothers and sent to the United States for adoption. Quirin was able to have a successful reunion with his Irish birth mother and also has been reunited with a number of half brothers and sisters. Now, Layla’s frolics and exploits have become the source of many family social media posts here and in Europe, Quirin said.
“They take one look at her blue eyes and they say ‘what a stunning dog,’ ” Quirin said of his relatives.
Deshong said Layla will be undergoing additional refresher training and take part in what she called “good canine citizen training” to assure she will remain a good, obedient companion for Quirin.
From the looks of things, Quirin, his wife and Layla are doing fine so far.
“Every time I see her, I smile,” said Quirin, “And that is a good thing.”
Anyone interested in the companion dog program can contact Pat Deshong at the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation at 631-728-7387 or PDeshong@SASF.org.