published Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Therapy dog helps Marine recover from war

SOMERVILLE, Tenn. — As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Pennsylvania native A.J. Courteau has experienced his share of surprises.

As you can imagine, some of them were bad.

But the one he received Thursday, a 12-week-old black Lab puppy named Lucy, was a good one -- and she just might be able to help Courteau put some of the bad behind him.

Like many war veterans, Courteau suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. His doctor back home believes a therapy dog could aid greatly in his recovery, and young Lucy will now take on the role.

"When my family told me we would be driving 14 hours down here to go to Graceland, I kind of knew something was up," said Courteau, a big Elvis fan who made the trip here with his mother Patty and his father Al. "But I had no idea what it was. I was overwhelmed when I found out I was getting this dog."

When a therapy dog was first suggested, Courteau's father called his friend and fellow Pennsylvania native Ken Blackman to see if he had a Lab puppy that would be right for the job.

"I told them I didn't have one," said Blackman, a retired dog trainer from Wolf River Kennels who now lives in Williston, Tennessee, in Fayette County. "But I knew someone who might."

Blackman called Robert Milner -- one of the leading dog trainers in the country and the owner of DuckHill Kennels in Somerville -- and Milner said come on down.

"Anybody who wants to go over there and take bullets for me, I owe them," said Milner, who served 26 years, active and reserve, in the Air Force. "I appreciate these guys. They're allowing me the privilege of running this business."

Milner, who helped the Memphis Fire Department re-work its canine disaster-detection program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, doesn't operate a typical dog-training operation.

One of the first things people see when they drive up to his kennel is a military-style obstacle course with rope bridges, rock piles and other distractions young dogs must navigate before receiving their food. He routinely has more than 100 puppies on site, and it's nothing unusual to hear the movie "Saving Private Ryan" blaring over loud speakers to condition the dogs to chaotic surroundings.

Many of the dogs raised and trained at DuckHill Kennels will someday serve active military duty overseas or work in bomb and weapons detection in the United States. So in some ways, the petite young pup Courteau received Thursday is almost like a fellow soldier.

"I've owned a lot of dogs in the past, but most of them were dogs we rescued from various situations," said Courteau, 28. "This is a different sort of dog. when I first picked her up, she just laid back in my arms, gentle as can be. I think she'll be fantastic."

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that as many as 20 percent of soldiers who served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq have returned home with PTSD.

Courteau didn't speak specifically about his symptoms. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of PTSD can sometimes include crippling flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, frightening thoughts and avoidance of anyone or anything that might trigger the symptoms.

So how can Lucy help?

"My girlfriend, Libby, doesn't live with me right now," said Courteau, who is attending school at Mercyhurst in Pennsylvania. "So just having a companion, especially a dog of this caliber, I think it'll be good for me in ways I probably haven't even thought of yet.

"She won't be a couch dog, but she'll definitely be spoiled."

Courteau's only real challenge with Lucy might be battling his mother and father for time with the dog.

"She's just a little doll," Patty Courteau said. "She'll be perfect for him."

Al Courteau agreed.

"I don't really like driving that much anymore," he said. "But for what he's likely to get out of owning this dog, a 14-hour drive was a small price to pay."

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