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A West Virginia based nonprofit is filling a therapeutic need for first responders and disabled veterans by training service dogs.
Founded by Wayne and Anjanette Montanó, Thin Line Service Dogs provides working Golden Retrievers to unsung heroes across the state and country.
Based in Hedgesville, Berkeley County, Anjanette Montanó said the organization’s name “Thin Line” references the line of danger crossed voluntarily by people in service to their fellow human beings.
She said each dog is named after a fallen hero.
“It’s quite an honor to remember our fallen heroes who have served for us,” she said. “It’s one of our favorite parts of this, we recognize the hurt from the families when they lose their hero but we want to take that loss and turn it into a way to honor someone who has honored us.”
Through the connection established with the dog, the families of the fallen heroes are provided a sense of happiness and hope that their loved one is not forgotten.
The dogs are carefully selected as puppies for their health and temperament.
“Through our breeding program, we make sure they have good solid hips and elbows and shoulders that tell us if they’re able to do that work,” she said.
The dogs receive specialized training to support veterans and first responders like firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics dealing with post-traumatic stress or extreme stress in a variety of situations and settings.
The dogs are also popular with Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams looking for rapid response, or facility peer support dogs.
“We provide crisis response canines to work on peer support, CISM teams, or make morale visits,” she said. “We just placed a dog with the Leesburg Police Department. So departments like these are now finding that these dogs are becoming a great resource to support the mental health side of their job.”
She said sometimes departments will do a “train and trade” where they are able to raise the dog with Thin Line Service Dogs providing resources like food, vet care and crates.
“They’re able to raise that dog in their department without having the financial means because that’s paid through Thin Line for the immediate use of these American heroes,” she said.
Montanó said VA hospitals and firefighter rehabilitation centers have also expressed interest in obtaining service animals. In the future, she hopes to provide service dogs to health care and criminal justice facilities.
Montanó’s husband Wayne is a Navy veteran and a firefighter. Both he and Montanó have their own service dogs – an experience that inspired them to help others.
After reading a report from the Ruderman Family Foundation that found first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, the couple became even more motivated to train the dogs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depression and PTSD through constant exposure to death and trauma are the primary reasons first responders take their lives.
Golden Retrievers are known for their gentle, affectionate and obedient nature, qualities Montanó said make them great service dogs.
“Golden Retrievers are proven over and over with their temperament,” she said. “They like to please, they love to work. They have a great on/off switch. They can go out and work but yet they can also come in and be readily available.”
The cost to cover the two years it takes to train the dogs is paid for by sponsors with each dog provided at no cost to their new owners.
One of those dogs is Billy, a puppy sponsored by Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
“Billy is seven months old, he’s doing very well. He’s extremely smart, he was hand picked,” she said. “That’s what we do, we don’t take the whole litter, we take the dogs that show really great service dog prospects, and he’s not disappointing.”
Billy is named after William “Billy” Joseph Cashman of New Jersey, an Army veteran who died during 9-11.
Cashman and a friend were on United Airlines Flight 93 headed to Yosemite National Park to go hiking when the plane was hijacked by terrorists and went down in a Pennsylvania field.
Cashman’s ties to 9-11, however, extend beyond that fateful flight. As a young man he had served as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division – nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles.” He later became a welder teaching night classes to union apprentices.
During his 40 years with Ironworkers Local 46, Cashman’s skills helped construct the World Trade Center.
Montanó said his story is a way to remind people about those who sacrifice their lives for others.
“The story about Cashman is, he is one of those unsung heroes, he built those World Trade Centers, and the thing that built him was the thing that took him away,” she said. “So we want to raise awareness that they are everyday people who have sacrificed their lives for us.”
The dogs assist their handlers with daily tasks, increasing mental stimulation and combating loneliness.
The puppies start their training when they are just three days old to retain as much information as possible in preparation for when they are placed with puppy raisers.
The dog’s unconditional love provides more than a happy distraction. Montanó said the dogs have been shown to improve heart health due to anxiety and stress reduction and even help with emotional and social skills.
They also help their owners get more exercise and a better quality of sleep.
“The dogs also assist in making them get up and get moving,” she said. “A dog needs to go out and use the bathroom, a dog needs to be fed, a dog needs to be walked, it needs to be mentally stimulated so being able to get them out and do that brings them to a whole other focus than on themselves.”
All factors, Montanó said, that help people with physical and emotional disabilities like PTSD.
“The exercising piece of course. You know, lowering the heart rate, better fitness, better emotional state of mind when you’re focusing on something else, or something other than you,” she explained. “This dog becomes their workmate, their best friend, and the last thing you want to do is disappoint your best friend.”
Each hour caring for a Thin Line puppy is essential to its development as a future service dog. The puppy raisers work closely with Thin Line staff, providing monthly reports to help monitor the puppies’ progress.
The puppy raisers need to provide a stable home environment, commit to once a week training and take the dog out into the community at least five days a week. The dogs participate in age appropriate socialization opportunities like public outings and medical visits.
“They’ll be taught how to interrupt a leg pumping, the stressors, the fist pumps, the hands on the heads. Those are key indicators of PTSD,” she said. “Every one of our dogs is taught these stressors so that if they’re working in a crisis response scenario, or with a first responder suffering from PTSD, we already have that started.”
The puppies are eventually returned to participate in advanced training. They are then matched with their new handler. The dogs are able to help manage a disability and provide a sense of security to their handler. They’re trained how to interrupt nightmares, a PTSD episode, retrieve mobility devices like braces, and even pull wheelchairs.
Montanó said it’s important for the public to be aware of the boundaries surrounding the service dog team. She said it is important not to be tempted to touch or talk to the animal which can serve as a distraction and interfere with their job.
She said they are always looking for willing trainers.
“We’re always in need of puppy raisers and puppy sitters,” she said.” So being a puppy raiser, yes you do have to turn the dog in but we will take people who have no clue about training and train them – that’s part of the beautiful process about our mission.”