New Castle News

April 8, 2013

‘He has given me a life’: Vietnam veteran finds stability, friendship in service dog

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Lambert the Labrador Retriever is a bundle of energy.

Constantly in motion, the chocolate-colored 2-year-old uses his big, brown eyes to plead with his owner, David Hoover, to throw a ball to him or join him in a tug-of-war with one of his many other toys.

But when Hoover quietly says, “Lambert, stop, Lambert, stay,” the rambunctious dog’s muscular 90-pound body comes to a screeching halt, as does the incessant wagging of his tail.

In an instant, Lambert goes from playful pup to a service dog with a job to do.

“It’s tough,” said Hoover, “because your instinct is to treat him like a pet, but you have to get stern with him at times so he can understand it’s time to do what he’s there to do.”



DOING A SERVICE

What Lambert is there to do is to help the 65-year-old Hoover with his post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of the time the retired Marine Corps sergeant spent in Vietnam from 1967-68.

On Aug. 3, 1968, at Contien, Quang Tri Provence, the 1965 New Castle High graduate, who grew up on the city’s East Side, was on the first day of his second tour of duty when a bunker he was in took a direct hit. He found himself buried under sand bags and wooden beams.

“I was in total darkness and kept wondering if I was dead,” Hoover said. “I could hear the Marines above saying that they needed to dig me out, but most likely I hadn’t survived.”

Hours later, he found himself looking at the sky as the base doctor told him he had a broken thigh and would be choppered out. It was many years later that he was diagnosed with PTSD.

Hoover admits he did his share of drinking after he left the service in 1971, then became a workaholic, isolating himself and attempting suicide on several occasions when he felt that life had overwhelmed him. He was forced to have his esophagus removed as a result of after-effects of Agent Orange he encountered in Vietnam.

“I was just a very angry person,” he said. “I was angry at everyone who crossed my path.”

It was 12 years ago when Hoover saw a story on the television news about dogs who could help PTSD victims cope. That led to the adoption of Granite, also a chocolate Lab.

Jane, his wife of nearly 25 years, stuck by him through it all and, finally, the couple began to get some relief when Granite came onto the scene.

“From Day 1, Granite was the perfect dog,” David said. “He was passive and very trainable.”

Granite’s reception in New Castle and the surrounding area was not a good one at first.

“People weren’t used to service dogs all those years ago,” Jane said. “We were questioned on many occasions when we tried to take him into restaurants and stores.”

As Granite began to age, David realized he needed a backup.

“Now with Lambert, we rarely, if ever, are questioned when we take him in somewhere,” Jane said, adding with a chuckle, “our biggest problem is that waitresses want to bring him food and water and he can’t accept anything when he’s working.”



FINDING LAMBERT

David, a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, knew that his new service dog would be named Lambert after former Steeler Jack Lambert before he even was born. As he began his search, David sought out the help of Jeff Woods, president and trainer at Misty Pines Dog Park in Franklin Park Borough, near Wexford.

The two sought out a breeder of Labradors in Cranberry Township and went in separately to survey what was available.

“We both picked the same puppy,” David said. “He was a cute little rascal, eight weeks old and the runt of the litter. There was just something about him that called to me. As soon as I saw him, I knew that was my dog.”

Woods agreed, for slightly different reasons.

“Most service dogs are Labrador Retrievers,” he said. “You are looking for a calm dog with a lot of intelligence so he is highly trainable. Lambert had puppy energy, but he was attentive and alert.

“Not every dog makes a good service dog,” Woods added. “Quite often, a dog starts out in training and doesn’t make the cut.”



A GOOD STUDENT

At 12 weeks old, Lambert was enrolled in  his first puppy class at Misty Pines. First, Lambert had to attend Canine Good Citizen training, where he learned simple commands such as “sit,” “stay” and “come.”

Lambert later became certified with Therapy Dog International, where he received credentials and a vest to accompany David anywhere he goes, such as stores, malls, restaurants and Veterans Administration hospitals in Butler and Pittsburgh, which he visits for both treatment and camaraderie.

“There are 70 people at the Butler VA who know Lambert’s name,” David said, “but I doubt that any of them know mine.

“He’s a big ham,” he added. “He picks up the entire place as soon as he walks in the door.”

Lambert is trained to go up and down escalators and through revolving doors.

“I can leave him at the door of a store, tell him to stay and he will be there when I come back,” David said. “He would wait all day if need be.”

Although Lambert wears his vest when he is “working,” Lambert occasionally takes it off at the Butler VA so that residents can interact with him.

“When he has the vest on, no one can pet him except for me,” David said. “The VA is the one place where I will take it off of him that he can get some attention.”

Otherwise, Lambert lays at his master’s feet. His gaze never leaves David’s face.

“He stares at me, it is very noticeable,” David said. “He makes sure I’m OK and keeps me calm and focused. When I am out with Lambert, people focus on him rather than me and that is a good situation for me.”



SAVING THE DAY

Lambert also knows when David is in trouble and he knows how to get him out of it.

David feels confident to drive on his own when Lambert is with him. The two were driving home from Pittsburgh last year when Lambert started nudging David from the back seat.

“I was losing my focus and he sensed it,” David said. “I’m sure he saved us from an accident.”

Just before Christmas, David awoke with a slight cramp in his stomach. Jane went off to work and as the day went along, the cramps worsened. David fell to the living room floor in pain just after lunch, out of reach of the phone, and Lambert began licking his face.

“Lambert, go fetch phone,” David commanded his dog.

In less than 30 seconds, Lambert delivered the phone and placed it in front of David so he could call Jane at work. At the hospital, David was diagnosed with an obstructed bowel.

Woods said that while Lambert is the first PTSD dog he has trained, he expects the practice to become a trend. While service dogs long have helped the blind, they now are being paired with children with autism to help them adapt.

“Service dogs also are becoming more common among veterans with so many coming back from the war and suffering from PTSD,” he said. “In the case of someone like David, having Lambert is very therapeutic to him. They go through the training together and every victory for Lambert is a victory for him.

“Lambert,” he added, “is in a perfect situation, and so is David.”



A FRIEND FOR LIFE

Lambert sleeps in bed with David and Jane, while Granite, who has battled arthritis and degenerative bone disease since he was 2 years old, sleeps nearby.

“We try not to leave Granite out, even though his service dog days are over,” David said. “When Lambert goes out as a service dog and Jane is at work, we bring someone in to stay with Granite so he doesn’t get depressed. He’s smart, he knows what is going on.”

Keeping Lambert up-to-date in his training is costly, but well-worth it, as far as David and Jane are concerned. The two already have more than $9,000 invested in Lambert, attending a group class with him every Saturday morning, as well as private classes twice-monthly.

“You have to keep his mind stimulated or he will forget what he knows,” David said. “Plus, as I’ve learned, 95 percent of the training is for the owner, not the dog.”

David plans to take Lambert golfing for the first time this summer.

“I’m going golfing and I’m looking forward to it,” David said. “Granite and Lambert changed everything for me.

“Without this guy,” he added as Lambert jumped up to shower him with hugs and kisses, “I’d either be in hiding or in a hole somewhere. He has given me a life.”

(Email: kcubbal@ncnewsonline.com).