A former Marine, who was injured in Afghanistan, now spends 20 hours a week at Can Do Canines teaching dogs to do everything from punch elevator call buttons to open kitchen drawers to help people with disabilities.
MINNEAPOLIS — A grenade explosion might have put an end to Dan Carbonneau’s effort to serve his country, but he hasn’t let it sway his determination to serve others. He found a new mission: training assistance dogs.
The former Marine from Excelsior, Minn., spends 20 hours a week at Can Do Canines in New Hope, Minn., teaching dogs to do everything from punch elevator call buttons to open kitchen drawers.
“The dogs help people with disabilities,” he said. “It’s nice to know that you’re doing something positive for the community.”
He came within inches of being someone who might need one of the dogs rather than train them. On Sept. 17, 2009, he was serving in Afghanistan when a hand grenade exploded a foot away from him.
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“Most of the shrapnel went away from me for some reason,” he said. “The rest was absorbed by my (body armor) protection. A friend who was next to me wasn’t so lucky. He took it in the chest.”
Carbonneau, 24, was far from unscathed. He was knocked unconscious and his eardrums were blown out. When he reached the hospital, a traumatic brain injury was diagnosed and Carbonneau was transferred to the Wounded Warrior Battalion at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune for treatment.
Three years later, he still suffers from daily headaches and tinnitus, but you have to pull that information out of him. Complaining isn’t his strong suit.
“I still have all my limbs,” he said. “There are people a lot worse off than I am.”
And he’s intent on helping them. Earlier this year, he applied for a fellowship program offered by the Mission Continues (www.missioncontinues.org), a St. Louis-based organization that matches post-9/11 veterans with public service projects. When they learned that he had spent part of his time in North Carolina training dogs, it was a natural fit with Can Do Canines, where he started in August.
“He’s doing a great job for us,” said Alan Peters, the executive director. “He’s very patient, and he’s good at reading the dog. A dog can’t tell you, ‘I’m confused.’ You have to keep a very sharp eye on the dog” for signs that it understands what’s being taught. “He’s been a wonderful asset for us.”
Carbonneau knows how much a dog can help someone in need. A dog helped him get back on his feet after his injury.
His therapist suggested that focusing on training a pet would help with his recovery. But he took it a step further: In addition to getting a Belgian shepherd puppy to train at home, he signed up for an apprenticeship with a professional K-9 trainer who was training dogs for the police force.
(Yes, he still has his dog. And, no, it doesn’t get jealous when it smells the odor of other dogs on his clothes.)
The dogs Carbonneau trains at Can Do Canines spend the first few months of their lives with volunteer trainers who take them into their homes. (About 30 puppies are expected to arrive in November and December, and Peters is desperate for puppy raisers. Go to can-do-canines.org.)
Working with in-house professional trainer Laura Waudby, Carbonneau is involved with the final stages of training. By the time he starts working with the dogs, they usually have been assigned to a client. The trainers teach them the exact skills they will need to serve that client. If the person is deaf, for instance, the dog is taught hand signals. If a wheelchair is involved, the dog is trained to keep out of the device’s way.
“Typically, when a dog learns to heel, it’s taught to sit down whenever you stop,” Carbonneau explained. “Sometimes we have to cure them of the urge to sit. The wheelchairs can turn suddenly, and the dog has to pivot to stay out of the way.”
One of the programs involves teaching the dogs to react to the scent of someone who is going into a diabetic coma. The dogs can sense the change in body chemistry caused by high blood sugar before the diabetic feels any physical symptoms. By using odor patches, the trainers teach the dogs to alert the client that a problem is imminent.
“You want to have a good connection with the dog,” Carbonneau said. “You want the dog to trust you. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of praise.”
The patience really comes into play when teaching complicated tasks, such as opening a kitchen drawer.
“With the difficult tasks, you break them down into small steps,” he said. “You teach one step at a time and then connect all the steps at the end.”
On any given day, he’ll work with five to 10 dogs, but in bursts of time.
“If you work with them too long, they get tired and you start to lose them” in terms of their paying attention, he said. “You have to keep it exciting for them.”
To make sure the dogs have been taught everything they need to know, the last bit of training usually takes place in the client’s home, where the handler can make sure that the person and the dog are working in sync.
As for Carbonneau, working with a client is a reminder that he’s helping to improve someone’s life.
“I get something out of it, too,” he conceded. “But it’s not just me. A lot of post-9/11 vets care” about improving the community.
Carbonneau hopes to start business school next year. In the meantime, he’s taking a full load of classes at Normandale Community College. Sometimes his schedule gets a little tight and he has to scramble to squeeze in all his dog training, but he isn’t considering scaling back.
“It’s a big commitment, but this is something I enjoy,” he said. “It gives me something more to do when I wake up than just go to school. I’ve never seen it as a chore.”