Fresh from basic training, a 7-month-old pup is ready to move forward with his mission to help calm a veteran coping with post-traumatic stress.
Gunny, a husky-pit bull mix, needs a home and companion.
"The biggest thing for us right now is we want to get a veteran for this guy," said dog trainer Ted DeNofio of Ted's Pet Country Club.
Gunny is the first dog trained through the N.J. Dogs of Honor partnership. DeNofio is teaming with Diana Pitman, director of the Cumberland County Department of Veterans' Affairs, and Maurice River Township officials to assist Cumberland County veterans.
Pitman, a former Army nurse facing post-traumatic stress, knows firsthand how a service dog can change a life.
"I was getting treatment from the local Veterans Administration clinic — I knew being a nurse the isolation factor was not good for me," she told The Daily Journal. "I had some friends around who were concerned. I didn't want to go out, I didn't want to deal with anything. It was too much to go to work and go home."
Pitman decided to open her life to a service dog.
"I had nothing to lose," she said.
In 2012, Pitman found Gunnar and they signed up with DeNofio for training. Gunnar helped Pitman triumph over her crippling anxiety and enabled her to be more socially-involved.
"I love this," DeNofio said of the training program. "You are doing it for a much bigger purpose."
While attending a spring wedding, Pitman crossed paths with Patricia Gross, mayor of Maurice River Township. They spoke about the role of service dogs in helping veterans.
Gross spearheaded the Maurice River Township Firefighters Association effort to take on the N.J. Dogs of Honor fundraising.
Gunny, a South Jersey Regional Animal Shelter alumnus, is the program's first dog to ace his obedience lessons. His future training will be personalized to serve the needs of the veteran who takes Gunny on as a partner.
"We want to give this dog for free to a veteran and all the training that goes with it," DeNofio said.
All information is kept confidential.
"We want to have a pool of veterans," DeNofio said, hoping to perfectly match dogs with those who may benefit from their companionship.
Gunny, with his striking blue eyes, is curious, quick-learning and loves the outdoors. He's neutered and up-to-date on his shots.
He greets everyone with a sniff and kiss.
"That's what you want with a service dog, you want them to be in public and be sweet to everybody," DeNofio. "See how he fits in with everybody, then they are a pleasure to be around."
The service dogs are "social butterflies but they have to be loyal to person they are working for," Pitman said, explaining how her dog is tuned into her emotionally and offers comfort when she is stressed.
"When you think about managing PTS, you have to think long-term in your life," Pitman said. "A lot of times with PTS, I think you are caught in the day-to-day managing of your symptoms."
"When you initially get a dog like this and you have to put the work into it, that can feel overwhelming," she said. "Life can be overwhelming on a good day. Add the dog to it, you're going to have periods of time where maybe you are working even harder and it's triggering some of those symptoms for you."
"But you look at it long range, like now I can't imagine my life without him," Pitman said, petting her dog. "People look at me and they think, 'Well you don't seem like you have PTS.'"
Pitman nodded toward her dog.
"Thank him for that," she said. "When I go out, I'm able to be social and engaged because he's here and I always know he has my back."
The service dogs can help create a safe space around a person. The presence of the dog is comforting, Pitman said.
Pitman urges interested veterans to apply.
"They have nothing to lose by asking," she said, noting she and DeNofio will talk with applicants to find the best match for Gunny.
"With his size, he can create more space; he can help people who have problems with their legs get up," DeNofio said. "He can carry things — he's a good size."
Gunny, 55 pounds, also is a perfect fit for a veteran who enjoys the outdoors.
"He has physical energy needs. He's not a dog that can lay around the house and do nothing," DeNofio said. "At least not now, maybe when he is older, he'll slow down."
Gunny gets along with children and other dogs, too.
"He needs someone who is going to commit to the program because he's going to commit to them," DeNofio said. "It's got to be a mutual thing."