A veteran’s best friend

Kerri Harris works with Flint, a black Lab/weimaraner mix,

When Mary Cortani returned to her passion of training dogs, she
not only found her purpose in life but to dozens of war veterans
trying to regain theirs.
When Mary Cortani returned to her passion of training dogs, she not only found her purpose in life but to dozens of war veterans trying to regain theirs.

“The military tears you down and builds you back up to be the perfect soldier,” she said of her own experience in the service. “It gives you a purpose. When these veterans come home and have to transition out, they’re lost. They don’t even know what to put on to wear every day.”

Two years ago, the former Army veteran opened an obedience dog school after years of working in the corporate hi-tech field.

Cortani quickly realized her school, K9 Coach Plus, could also help veterans cope with life after service.

She started volunteering her time when a marine approached her after his efforts to obtain a rottweiler service dog came up short.

Cortani, who trained canines to sniff out bombs and assist in search and rescue operations while in the Army, empathized with the post-traumatic stress disorder victim and agreed to help him train his own puppy.

This opened the door for Cortani to help other veterans take back their lives, such as Kerri Harris, who has been training her 2-year-old rescue dog Flint.

“He takes the attention off me and puts it on him,” said Harris, who had an adverse reaction to the anthrax vaccine while in the Air Force and suffers from neurological attacks as a result.

The 30-year-old says Flint has helped her conquer the social anxiety she has related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“People think I’m training him, so it changes the conversation.”

That is just one aspect Cortani says is different when a dog is trained by a veteran.

“The cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work for vets,” she said. “A fully-trained service dog can be trained in 80 to 100 commands, and veterans don’t necessarily need all of those.”

For a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Cortani said it’s more important for a dog to able to turn on lights during a nightmare or keep them calm in a crowded restaurant, than it is to assist them crossing a street.

Cortani recalled one post-traumatic stress disorder veteran who would only leave his house to go to the grocery store in the middle of the night. Once he committed to training an animal, Cortani said he was forced to leave the house to walk the dog, helping the socializing process.

“What I’ve observed is the hypervigilance. They need a dog to sense that and calm them,” Cortani said. “Something as simple as that gives immediate benefit for these men and women.”

Currently, Veterans Affairs provides a letter from doctors stating veterans can be eligible for a dog. Veterans must cover the cost and do the legwork on their own.

Cortani has been working with local organizations to connect veterans with service animals. The wait period is relatively short where a dog can be acquired in weeks instead of years.

The short turnaround has helped Mariela Meylan learn to walk again. Her dog Reba has helped get her out of a wheelchair after she was struck by an Iraqi civilian while changing a tire on a vehicle in her convoy.

She spent five years in hospitals recovering. Now Reba has given her a purpose.

“I want to get to work,” the 30-year-old said. “Reba helps me to know when something is not right. She gets closer to me and tells me to breathe and calm myself down.”

Cortani doesn’t just train veterans and their dogs at a warehouse in Gilroy, she also takes students out into the world so they can put their skills into practice.

At a restaurant, Cortani started tearing up when Meylan’s father helped her to the restroom without the aid of her walker.

“Six months ago, that wasn’t possible.”

For Cortani, the long weekends and late nights have been worth it.

“They’ve given so much that their service shouldn’t go unrecognized,” she said. “It’s one thing to lose your life, it’s another thing to lose your soul.”

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K9 Coach Plus

– Training in obedience, in-kennel and service dogs. Certified as Canine Good Citizen Evaluator and U.S. Army master instructor specializing in K9 instruction.

– Currently working with nonprofit organizations to raise money for veterans to get service animals through Project Hired at (408) 557-0880 or www.projecthired.org/ and USA Together at (650) 227-3800 or https://app01.usatogether.org/.

– Located at 8425 Monterey St., Gilroy.

– Details: 623-7887 or [email protected]

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