Special dog provides more than assistance for Ellicott City veteran

July 31, 2014|By Steve Jones, For The Baltimore Sun

The living room of John and Michelle Barbare's townhouse in Ellicott City is filled by a crib, baby clothes and toys that belong to Cameron, their 1-month-old son. In the midst of these things lies Javier, the family's dog.

It's a comforting environment, far from the places John Barbare used to call home.

The 34-year-old Army veteran spent years in war-torn areas of the Middle East. Barbare, who joined the army when he was 17 and graduated from the Citadel in the early 2000s, served during the initial buildup of the Iraqi war in 2003-2004. In January 2011, he began a 10-month tour in Afghanistan.

During that tour, he suffered a pair of brain injuries. The first happened when an explosion went off near his convoy. After that injury, Barbare persuaded his commander to let him return to the field, and just a month later, he received his second head injury when a rocket struck his remote outpost.

The wounds earned Barbare a pair of Purple Hearts — and left him with lingering balance issues, chronic headaches and neck pain. He spent more than two years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center while recovering; he was discharged in January 2014 and began the adjustment to civilian life.

It was at Walter Reed that an occupational therapist suggested he might benefit from a service dog. Barbare took the suggestion to heart, and his life has been made easier by Javier, a 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix.

Javier helps Barbare with everyday tasks, including opening and closing doors, retrieving dropped objects and turning light switches on and off. The good-natured dog also provides companionship and love to a man who has witnessed tragedy and trauma during America's involvement in two lengthy wars.

"On a daily basis, he is my companion," said Barbare, a native of Greenville, S.C., who now works for a government contractor. "I drop things a lot, and he's there to pick them up. I hold onto his leash, which helps me with my balance. Javier responds well, and we've really bonded together."

The two have been inseparable since Javier became Barbare's assistance dog in January.

"As far as companionship and helping John with day-to-day activities, Javier has been an incredible addition," said Michelle Barbare, John's wife of nearly two years. "He's definitely been a mood elevator for John, and given him something to get him out the door every morning."

John Barbare is able to drive to his job; Javier shares the commute with him. The dog also was there when Cameron was born July 1 at Saint Agnes Hospital.

"I was able to bring him into the hospital," Barbare said. "He goes to work with me. I do a lot of deep-sea fishing, and he goes out on the boat all the time."

Javier gets to have his fun, too. Barbare takes him for runs at Centennial Park and to a park in Carroll County.

The match between Barbare and Javier was made possible by Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that provides assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.

"John was selected for our program because of the nature of his injuries, which could impair his ability to get through the day," said Dr. Ellen Torop, the program manager at Canine Companions.

The organization has been placing dogs since 1993. During that time, 107 dogs have found a home with war veterans. Many of those animals will be honored during International Assistance Dog Week, Aug. 3-9. Around the nation, service dogs will be recognized for heroic deeds while organizers work to educate and raise awareness of their programs.

The demand for dogs is evident in Canine Companions' 18-month waiting list. Candidates who wish to receive a dog must first complete an application that involves telephone and in-person interviews.

The process to train dogs begins with breeding near the Canine Companions national headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif. Dogs are placed with "puppy raisers," and are then enrolled in obedience classes, exercised on a daily basis and taken to various settings in the community.

The dogs are 14 to 16 months old when they are released to Canine Companions locations around the nation, including the Northeast Regional Center in Medford, N.Y., where Barbare and Javier met. During a six- to nine-month training course, dogs are taught about 50 commands and learn to work in different environments.

Matches are made during a two-week training class, in which recipients learn proper care and handling techniques. A formal graduation ceremony concludes the program.

"We consider several factors during the matching process," Torop said. "The dog's natural temperament plus the person's lifestyle and working style have a lot to do with how we match up."

For more information about Canine Companions for Independence, go to cci.org.

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