BENNINGTON — After building her unique service dog training program over the past eight years, Michelle LeBlanc wants to take Vermont Paws & Boots “to the next level.”
She said that means securing a larger facility that will allow more room for the veterans and first responders she matches with dogs in her comprehensive training course.
The hope is to provide enough space for those taking the course — designed for veterans and others suffering from post traumatic stress disorder — to live on-site and train daily together.
For the past two-plus years, Vermont Paws & Boots has been based at 114 Gage St., in a storefront location that once housed a pizza restaurant.
“But this place has been sold, and I am desperately looking for a new place to build our full-time facility,” LeBlanc said. “We’ll be doing some campaigning and hoping to raise some donations more aggressively than I have over the past eight years running this program.”
She said her new landlord is “graciously letting me stay here until June.” But LeBlanc and the board of directors of her nonprofit organization want to begin the process of moving as soon as possible – especially since a facility where her students can stay overnight has been her ultimate goal from the beginning.
A new facility, she said, would eliminate the need for students to travel to attend twice-weekly class sessions. Many of her students live in the Chittenden County area, she said, because she began the program there in 2015 before moving to the Bennington site two years ago.
She’s also beginning to bring in students from southern Vermont and expects to attract others from nearby New York.
“Back in early 2014, the government was searching for answers, with 22 vets a day committing suicide,” LeBlanc said. “Vermont has the most veterans per capita. I was asked by some local leaders to start a service dog program because they knew I was a vet and also working with K9s.”
“This program has been very successful,” said LeBlanc, an Army veteran and retired Vermont State Police K9 handler. “These students realize that there is light at the end of the tunnel and this program works. I’ve got people who had literally not left their house in three years do a cross-country tour with their dog.”
Others include vets with PTSD symptoms who are now re-employed or finally back in college, she said, and fathers who have reunited with teenage children after participating in the program.
“We train two days a week and do family-style dinners at night because we are really building this camaraderie, just like we had in the military or as first responders,” she said.
Marine Corps veteran Mike Warren, who retired after serving from 1987 to 2007, is enrolled in LeBlanc’s current training class, along with his dog Gunner.
Warren said he has PTSD symptoms and physical issues related to Gulf War Syndrome. The condition is believed caused by exposure to toxic chemicals – including possible chemical weapons releases — and thick smoke unleashed when hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait were set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces during the Desert Storm operation of 1991.
In addition to serving in the Persian Gulf, Warren also took part in the U.S. operation to topple Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989.
He later trained to become an aircraft mechanic and worked for several years on U.S. President Bill Clinton’s helicopter.
Warren said he has trouble dealing with some situations in public, and Gunner is “kind of like my barrier. I’ve been out more in public.”
Among other services, the dogs are trained to be alert to anyone approaching from behind their owner and will stand in front if someone moves too close to the person.
Gunner provides companionship, Warren said, but also helps when he “can feel me stressing out; he’ll come right over.”
At other times, he said, the dog “will put his head right on my lap. He senses when I’m feeling stressed ... He helps with PTSD a lot. That’s really what he is for.”
Tentative plans for a new training center have been developed, LeBlanc said, requiring at least 2,000 square feet of floor space up to about 6,000 square feet. Outside training areas and parking space also will be needed, she said.
She said she’d like to hear from anyone with a potential site and/or from those who want to help support the program financially.
Information is available on the Paws & Boots website about the program, and about LeBlanc’s career serving in the army and later as a K-9 handler with the state police, from which she retired in 2019.
LeBlanc, who grew up in this area, graduated from Mount Anthony Union High School in 1988 and from Norwich University in 1992.
ASKED TO HELP
“I had a very good career and that’s how this all started,” LeBlanc said. “I was literally asked by some local officials up in Chittenden County in 2014 to start a service dog program, because Vermont didn’t have that.”
She launched her first class soon afterward and formed a nonprofit organization “and we have been going strong ever since,” she said.
For several years, before she retired from the VSP, she taught classes on her days off and on weekends, and they primarily trained outdoors or wherever suitable space could be found.
She and the students were often “standing outside training – jumping into our cars to get warm – and back out.”
She said they “just went to stores, and Home Depot, local armories. I was living in Burlington then. But this [the Gage Street space] is our first home.”
State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, has been a strong supporter of the program, LeBlanc said.
The training “makes a huge difference in the lives of veterans and first responders,” Morrissey said. “I have spoken to a number of participants, graduates of the program and their family members. All have expressed their extreme gratitude that a program like this exists and the amazing difference it has made in their lives. Their stories literally bring tears to your eyes.”
LOOKING FOR A HOME
The Gage Street building “has never been a place where we are going to stay permanently,” she said. “But unfortunately, when COVID hit, the real estate market went through the roof. We’ve been looking for a permanent home for the better part of two and a half years.
“We need space and we need to go to the next level,” she added “Come June, I am praying that we have the walls and roof going up on a new facility.”
LeBlanc said she has relied on donations and her own funds for support and doesn’t charge the individuals who are accepted for the training program.
She also has started a separate pet training business, called Awesome Pets, which has provided revenue to help fund the Paws & Boots training.
“We’re eight years into the program, and we are going to be doing a serious push when we get everything in place to do a campaign, to raise some money and hopefully build a new facility,” she said. “The veterans and first responders deserve it, and we are trying to save their lives as well as save the rescue dogs.”
Darlene Cumm, of Shaftsbury, is a member of the nonprofit board for Vermont Paws & Boots and has been involved in the program since it started.
“I knew right then I was for it,” Cumm said, as soon as she saw the training helping “people who told you they didn’t even have a life before they got into this program and got their dog and graduated.”
She added, “It’s very hard to sit and listen, when you are interviewing [training applicants], about why they want to join this program. It’s sad to listen to it.”
She and LeBlanc said the training is stricter and more demanding than similar service dog training programs, requiring written essays and tests and work at home with the dog as well as during class sessions.
“They have to have dedication,” Cumm said. “They can’t just come here every week ... It’s a commitment for all of us, and I think it should be a commitment for this town, because we have a lot of veterans here, a lot of responders.”
Most of the dogs in the program are themselves rescued from a shelter, LaBlanc said. Each receives initial training and then begins working with a veteran or first responder exclusively, living with the person and helping him or her cope with such issues as a physical disability or PTSD.
LeBlanc said the dogs provide more than companionship, which in itself is important, but they also offer a strong body to lean on if the person is losing balance, or help by “watching their six” and alerting or moving between the owner and anyone approaching.
The dogs should be considered “life-saving equipment,” she said.
A high level of training “doesn’t happen in 21 days and doesn’t happen with a dog that is pre-trained,” she said. “These guys are going through the program together. That bond is powerful.”
The dogs are of no particular breed, she said, including everything from pit bulls to a Great Dane; Rottweilers, labs, shepherds, even a poodle.
“This is a year-long program, and it’s the only one nationwide that is as strict as mine,” LeBlanc said. “And I’m also a veteran and a first-responder, so I understand what they are going through because I’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
She added, “So it’s hard; it’s not an easy program; it’s difficult and it takes a long time, but I’ve clearly had parents come up to my mother at graduation and say, ‘If it wasn’t for your daughter, my son would have been dead.’”