Rescued Labradoodle helps wounded veteran

Chocolate Labradoodle Esther once wandered the streets of South Carolina as a stray, but thanks to the Carolina Canines for Service wounded veteran program the shaggy Doodle now has an important new life mission — and a loving home.

Esther and Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Dean Suthard, who was deployed three times to Iraq. (Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Ashlee Galloway)

Carolina Canines for Service saw great potential in the intelligent 1-year-old Esther, so they pulled her from a South Carolina shelter with the intention of training her to be a companion for a wounded warrior in need. But before she could report for duty, Esther entered a unique training program, one that rehabilitated the once-stray Doodle and her trainer — a military prisoner.

“The idea started with just wanting to get a dog program for military prisoners to have a rehabilitative effect. Our prisoners would be trained to prepare dogs to assist wounded warriors,” Chief Warrant Officer John Nolan, who is in charge of the Marine Security Detachment with the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, tells News.

During her time at the Brig, Esther’s trainer was able to teach her to perform more than 70 different jobs, all of the things she would have to do in order to assist the wounded veteran who would become her new person: retrieve household items, load and unload a washing machine and dryer, open and close doors, and assist her owner in sitting and standing, among other responsibilities.

Sure, trained service dogs like Esther assist wounded warriors with everyday tasks, but they also become a main source of moral support for their families.

“They become a constant companion,” says Officer Nolan.

Esther first met her wounded warrior, retired Marine staff sergeant Dean Suthard about one year ago, on May 15, 2012. For Suthard, the pairing seemed as if it was meant to be, and he is sure Esther would agree.

“She chose me,” Suthard remembers. “I remember how uncontrollably excited she was to see me for the first time.”

Suthard says Esther was instantly protective of him. “My friend’s service dog tried to come up to me, and she would not let him get near,” Suthard says of Esther. “Esther wouldn’t let that dog or any other one near me — I was her man.”

From the start, Esther’s presence improved Suthard’s quality of life. Combat injuries he sustained when his Humvee flipped in Iraq had left Suthard with three crushed vertebrae in his back. Limited mobility and pain left the once spirited soldier feeling isolated from the rest of his family and removed from his normal life.

“I can’t bend over,” Suthard explains, “so that kept me from being able to help out around the house or going out at all, really. It has been hell at times.”

Suthard’s injuries left him unable to assist his wife of 18 years, Christy, as she cared for their five kids. But with Esther by his side, Suthard can confidently contribute. “Now, with Esther, I feel like I can help out again,” Suthard says proudly. “I can go to my children’s schools and help my wide work through the family schedule.”

Thanks to Esther, Suthard says he can better deal with everything he’s suffered in the aftermath of war.

“I suffer from [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] from some of my experiences while deployed,” Suthard explains. “She pushes against me when lots of people are around or someone is close behind me. It lets me know she always has my back.”

Since they have become partners, Esther and Suthard start every day off together. Esther assists Suthard as he carefully gets up out of bed, and the two head right outside to the backyard for a fun game of fetch with Esther’s favorite toy — her orange and blue ball.

“Playing fetch gets us both motivated to start our day,” Suthard explains.

Esther has also given Suthard enough confidence to do something he enjoyed before his deployment, something he once thought would be impossible to do because of his injuries — travel.

“We’ve been all over together,” Suthard says of the fun adventures he’s had with his four-legged companion. “We went to [Washington], Virginia Beach, [Va.] and Pittsburgh.”

With all that Esther has learned and accomplished, and with how much she has changed Suthard’s outlook, it’s hard to believe just two years ago, the loyal Labradoodle was languishing at the local pound. Without the Carolina Canines for Service organization, Esther might never have been able to find a new purpose and a devoted family.

“She has changed my life,” Suthard says of Esther. “She goes everywhere with me, and she never wants to leave my side — she is my best friend.”