Canine Companion finds new home with a veteran


“Trapper, this is not goodbye, it’s see you later,” Kirsten Holley said as she handed Trapper’s leash to Karen Steelman.

Surrounded by loved ones and furry friends, three veterans were gifted service dogs for continued help during Canine Companions’ Service Dogs for Veterans Team Training graduation ceremony this past Friday.

“We’re delighted to be able to serve veterans,” said Debra Dougherty, executive director of the Northeast region. Although Canine Companions has always served veterans, in 2018 it launched a program with the purpose of pairing veterans who have PTSD with service dogs.

Just last year, Holley, a U.S. Army veteran, graduated from this program with her own service dog named Dean. She then became a puppy raiser to Trapper III, who would go on to become a service dog for Karen Steelman, a U.S. Air Force veteran and mother of three, for this year’s graduation.

“As a puppy raiser, that’s the highest privilege,” Holley said, referring to how her work directly led to helping another female veteran. “I couldn’t have asked for [Trapper III] to be in a better placement.”

“There are few things that parallel the strength of the human-animal bond,” Dougherty said. Steelman said meeting Trapper III for the first time felt like an instant connection. “He feels like home,” she said. Steelman said they were both born in California and raised in Massachusetts, and these similarities only compounded the power of their connection.

“Veterans often face a pervasive stigma surrounding mental health, which can deter them from seeking the support they need,” Steelman said in her graduation speech. She then stressed the important role of service dogs for people in this situation and provided some insight into her own experience.

“Before coming into team training, I was in a very dark place,” Steelman said. “Doing daily tasks such as the laundry, dishes, and vacuuming the house all seemed daunting and out of reach.”

Service dogs like Trapper III are trained to help with daily tasks such as picking up small objects off the floor or turning on light switches. However, they can also help their owner mitigate symptoms of PTSD, such as creating space around them in public, or gently waking them up from nightmares. Since they specialize in interrupting anxious behavior, service dogs are able to ground these veterans with PTSD.

Following her matching with Trapper III, Steelman said, “I’m looking forward to life now, because I know, with him, I don’t have to be afraid.”

Apparently, Trapper III is a big snuggler. When looking back on the time they have both spent with him, Holley and Steelman both appreciate his funny nature. “He’s such a goofball,” Holley laughed.

Although it was bittersweet for Holley to hand Trapper III over to Steelman, she said that “just to hear how much he changes her life already is so worth it—[it’s] rewarding.”

Grace Sargent is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media.


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