Florida Marine raises retriever to aid others

30 Jul 2003 | Cpl. Kristin S. Gambrell

In his beginning stages of instruction, the fluffy, golden-haired puppy observes scuba training as his teacher, Gunnery Sgt. Patrick J. Koch, demonstrates the doggy paddle.

Koch isn't raising Patriot, a 4-month-old golden retriever, to be a reconnaissance Marine like he is, but to be a service dog that will provide aid to people with visual, hearing and mobility impairments.

Patriot is one of six puppies from his litter to begin training as a service dog to work with a disabled person.  He and his littermates are puppies from New Horizons Service Dogs, based in Orange City, Fla., and rely on "puppy raisers" like Koch to begin their education. 

Puppy raising begins with volunteers fostering puppies once they turn eight weeks old.  Koch, an Orlando, Fla., native said his job is to get Patriot used to people, take him to obedience classes, and give him a loving home during his first year. Patriot has been living with Koch for more than two months.

"I wanted to do something for someone," said the staff noncommissioned officer in charge, Reconnaissance Training Platoon, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion.  "This is a win-win situation for everyone involved."

Koch takes Patriot to work everyday as part of getting the puppy socialized, which he said his command supports all the way.  The young dog goes with Koch to all the training exercises, such as pre-scuba classes, and he is constantly around the Marines, except during physical training.

"He is too young to take out to physical training," said Koch.  "I'll have to wait for him to get older to challenge his legs to a good old-fashioned run."

Koch said he would like to build Patriot up to run the three-mile portion of the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test with him before Koch retires next year.

Having Patriot around the Marines not only teaches the dog how to be around people, but also teaches the Marines what service dogs do, said Koch.  This type of socialization is important in Patriot's development.

"I am really impressed with Camp Lejeune and the Marines there for allowing the puppy to be raised on base," said Janet Severt, director, New Horizons Service Dogs.  "It takes a lot of dedication on the individual's part."

Another way Koch is getting the puppy used to the public is by taking him to dog classes.  At the classes, Patriot gets a lot of contact with other dogs.

"He is so calm compared to the other puppies," said Koch.  "He sits and observes what is going on; it's like he knows what he has been born for.  He was so well-behaved; this makes me so proud of the little fellow."

Now that Patriot is four months old, Koch is taking him into more public places so Patriot gets used to them.  He often visits places like restaurants, malls and grocery stores.

"Some (people) test me when I try to take him in public places, but this gives me a chance to teach the public, perhaps educate people that would ordinarily have no idea this service exists," said Koch.

"I believe this has opened my eyes in ways I thought were not possible," he explained. "Seeing the bond someone has with a service dog is really special, and knowing I am part of that is how this whole experience will, and is, changing my life."

Once Patriot has been with Koch for a year, he will go back to New Horizons Service Dogs and move on to advanced training.  Instructors there will teach Patriot how to do specific tasks for six more months.  After completing the training, he will be ready for service with a disabled person.

"My ultimate goal is to have Patriot placed with a disabled veteran," said Koch.  "I have no say in where he goes, but it would be nice to give back to the service.

"It will be hard to let him go," he added. "I have to focus on the mission at hand, and the mission at hand is for him to help someone with a disability."