Asheville can feel as if dogs have the run of the place. They are seemingly in every brewery and restaurant and on every trail. Nearly all of these animals are pets that might occasionally earn their keep by barking at a black bear in the trash or chasing a gopher from the tomato patch.
But four of Asheville’s dogs live a different type of life — one more important than vegetable garden defense. Rumley, Slick, Tina and Arliss are Labrador retrievers who are training as service dogs with Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit in which veterans train service dogs for other veterans.
Warrior Canine Connection is a community service option through Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court, Kevin Rumley, program director and a licensed clinical social worker, tells Xpress in an email. (Rumley the service-dog-in-training is named for him, which he calls “an honor and humbling.”)
Veterans Treatment Court is a post-plea diversion program that provides substance abuse and mental health treatment, as needed, over an 18-month probationary period.
The program allows veterans facing misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony charges to complete a voluntary program and petition the court for dismissal of their charges one year after completion, according to the court’s website. Community service is a mandatory component of Veterans Treatment Court, and 45 veterans going through the program have served with Warrior Canine Connection, Rumley says.
“Veterans are learning evidence-based techniques to train the animals, but it is actually the dogs that are supporting the veterans’ healing process,” Rumley explains. Learning emotion regulation and “showing up” for the dogs are skills that transfer to veterans’ personal lives as well, Rumley continues.
It’s a backdoor approach to healing, he says.
‘Part of their recovery’
Warrior Canine Connection is headquartered in Maryland with satellite programs across the country. Amy Guidash, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also has a certificate in service dog training, brought the program to Asheville in 2018.
Service dogs trained by Warrior Canine Connection go on to assist veterans with physical disabilities or psychological issues, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. The dogs being trained in Asheville won’t stay; they will return to Warrior Canine Connection headquarters for advanced training and eventually be assigned to a veteran. But from age 6 months to 24 months, they live with volunteer “puppy parents” and train with veterans.
Warrior Canine Connection calls its dog training model mission-based trauma recovery, as it teaches emotional skills like patience, emotional regulation and consistency. “We see a lot of veterans struggling with interpersonal skills and reintegrating into civilian life,” explains Michele Tate, Warrior Canine Connection’s other Asheville-based dog trainer.
Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville, which teaches veterans farming techniques and self-care skills, held a meet-and-greet for veterans to learn about Warrior Canine Connection on June 29. A few veterans, as well as their family members, showed up to meet the animals.
Tate demonstrates how Arliss, a yellow Labrador retriever, responds to cues of anxiety and sadness. As Tate taps her foot, signaling anxiety, Arliss comes over and lays his head on her knee. When Tate wrings her hands, Arliss moves his face to her hands and nuzzles them. Finally, Tate leans forward with her head in her hands. Arliss immediately starts gently jumping to nuzzle Tate’s face.
Guidash and Tate work with 15-20 veterans per week in one-hour sessions with the dogs. Participation may depend on their agreement with Veterans Treatment Court, but veterans typically sign up for eight training sessions.
Anyone who has bonded with an animal knows it can be hard to say goodbye. “Many of our veterans stay on well past eight sessions — they stay on for some 200, 300 sessions,” Guidash says. Warrior Canine Connection also works with veterans who come to them through Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, the Veterans Healing Farm or word-of-mouth. She adds that people referred by Veterans Treatment Court are frequently the ones who stay on the longest.
“It becomes part of their recovery,” she says.
‘I’m able to see what’s going on with me’
At the Veterans Healing Farm meet-and-greet, Michael D. White, who lives in West Asheville, shows his training success with Tina, a black Labrador retriever.
When Tina is eventually paired with a veteran as a service dog, she will need to respond to emotional distress cues, as well as provide practical help with physical tasks. White demonstrates how he has trained Tina to pick up a remote control off the floor, as well as pick up her own leash. He also trained Tina to sit down using only eye contact and a head nod. (For every task accomplished, Tina is rewarded with a dog biscuit, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish or a Cheerio from a treat pouch White wears.)
The days training Rumley, Slick, Tina and Arliss have been important for White. “They all will teach you different things about yourself,” he says of the dogs.
In 2006, the U.S. Army deployed White’s unit to Iraq. He was stationed 20 minutes away from Baghdad International Airport, serving several roles: combat radio retransmission operator, driver and a paratrooper with over 40 jumps. White calls himself “blessed to have made it unscathed,” as his only physical injury was smashing his finger in a Humvee window.
But his 18-month tour of duty left psychological scars, particularly anxiety. “I’ve been on the brink of death so many times,” he explains.
“There’s nothing glorious about battle, and every day was a struggle,” White says. “There was a point where if I did wake up, I didn’t know if I’d make it through the day. And if I did make it through the day to sleep, I don’t know if I would make it through the night.”
White continued to struggle while reacclimating to civilian life when his service ended in 2008. He says he struggled to articulate his feelings and relate to other people. His marriage to his high school sweetheart suffered; he lost a house and went into debt. “Then I ended up turning to drugs to cope, and that doesn’t help,” White says. “I did that for a long time.” After getting into trouble last year, he ended up in Veterans Treatment Court.
White says he has gained self-awareness by training service dogs for Warrior Canine Connection. “What’s great about this is that I’m able to see what’s going on with me,” he tells Xpress, as Tina sits at his feet. “Up until now with my mental health, my addiction and my diseases, I haven’t been able to say what’s wrong — I haven’t been able to communicate how I feel or how to articulate what’s really going on. So therefore, I’m frustrated, everybody else is frustrated, and it just causes a big mess. “
He adds, “I’ve been able to turn that around, though, and identify that. I’ve learned words to identify how I’m feeling and learned to ask questions.”
Tate, the dog trainer, says she’s seen how training service dogs has helped White develop patience, which is a crucial skill for dogs who have difficulty acclimating to new situations. “We’ll call Michael specifically to work with these dogs because we know he can be patient,” she says. “We know he can give them what they need.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship that touches everyone.
“We tell [the veterans] regularly the dogs are never going to judge you and you’re not going to break them,” Tate says. “Dogs are the picture of resilience. And that’s why you’re here working with them — because they have things to teach you and you have things to teach them.”