Kevin Riordan: Marlton dog school trains companions for veterans with PTSD

Marine Corps combat veteran Kevin Ellicott and his new buddy, Sierra, who he says is "helping me find my new normal."
Marine Corps combat veteran Kevin Ellicott and his new buddy, Sierra, who he says is "helping me find my new normal." (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: June 09, 2011

Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Ellicott's nightmares can be tough to explain.

But Sierra understands.

"She's actually woken me up when I was having one," says the 43-year-old Marine, whose peppy black Lab puppy is "helping me find my new normal."

Sierra is enrolled in the new Semper Fido program at K-9 Basics Dog Training & Clif Wyck Kennels in Marlton, where I checked out an open house Saturday.

K-9 co-owner Lisa Berg says a Good Morning America story inspired her to establish Semper Fido in November 2010 with Ellicott's help.

The goal is to annually prepare a half-dozen dogs to be companions for veterans isolated by combat-related psychological conditions such as anxiety. The animals will not be Seeing Eye or "service" dogs, but will provide a loving, calming presence in the lives of traumatized vets.

"Basically, the dogs are like very well-trained pets," says Ellicott, a Medford Lakes father of two who was repeatedly injured ("blown up 14 times") during his service in Iraq between 2003 and 2005.

"I have my good days and bad days," adds Ellicott, who is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Berg says: "I don't think enough is done for veterans. It's great to send them care packages while they're over there, but they need the support when they come home, too."

Like her husband and business partner, Brian, Berg is a retired Medford Township police officer. Cops, firefighters, and military personnel are a community, like dog lovers, and when you put them all together, you get the abundance of flags, fatigues, and fur that converged at the open house.

Amid vendors offering everything from beef jerky to canine massage, well-behaved dogs of every description were very eager to meet me.

"We're all animal freaks, obviously," Lisa Berg says with a laugh, noting that Semper Fido uses shelter or rescue animals whenever possible. A new trainee named Gunner was saved from the streets of Philadelphia's Kensington section in April.

Dog lovers of all sorts have been helping to get Semper Fido off the ground since November.

Take Pennsauken resident Shaun McCafferty, who took his rottweiler, Fritz, in for obedience classes at K-9. He ended up persuading his company, QTC Management Inc. in Philadelphia, to underwrite part of Gunner's training, which includes veterinary care and is expected to cost more than $2,500.

"The need for these animals is tremendous" because of the number of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, says Corey Hudson, president of Assistance Dogs International in California.

ADI advocates for expanding the use of all sorts of service dogs, including those trained to do more complex tasks for the physically disabled.

But simple canine companionship also can be a boon for struggling veterans, Hudson says.

Bethany Purdue and Emily Carver, recreation therapists with Veterans Affairs in Philadelphia, agree.

"It's the unconditional-love aspect," Purdue says. Noting that veterans who suffer from invisible conditions such as PTSD can encounter skepticism from humans, she says, "Dogs are nonjudgmental."

Ellicott, who struggles with panic attacks and sleeplessness, says his relationship with Sierra fills a void.

"It's been very therapeutic," says Ellicott, who's also dealing with his recent layoff after 10 years with the Medford Fire Department.

"There's a stigma attached to PTSD, and it can be difficult for [veterans with the condition] to come out and say, 'I've got some issues.' "

German shepherds, Labs, and other intelligent, energetic, readily trainable dogs at least 5 months old may be good Semper Fido candidates.

Training can take as long as a year.

Simply having Sierra by his side in public places, particularly among crowds, is a comfort to Ellicott.

"Job One for me right now is to get well," he says. "And Sierra has my back."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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