FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. -- Esther, a 70-pound, shaggy, dark-furred Labradoodle with bright, brown eyes, once a stray incarcerated in a South Carolina dog pound, was given a new leash on life by the Carolina Canines for Service program. The program rescued the year-old pup to train as a service dog for a wounded warrior.
“The idea started with just wanting to get a dog program for military prisoners to have a rehabilitative effect,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Nolan, the officer in charge of the Marine Security Detachment with the Naval Consolidated Brig Charleston, S.C. “Our prisoners would be trained to prepare dogs to assist wounded warriors.” Esther was trained by a military prisoner to complete around 70 different tasks including retrieving needed items, loading and unloading washers and dryers, holding doors, waking her wounded warrior owner and helping her owner to sit or stand. Once a trained service dog joins a family, the animal quickly becomes so much more than just assistance for the wounded warrior, said Nolan.
“They become a constant companion,” he added. Esther was the companion one family desperately needed.
Esther met Dean Suthard, a retired Marine staff sergeant with three crushed vertebrae in his back, and his family May 15, 2012. “She chose me,” said Suthard. “I remember how uncontrollably excited she was to see me for the first time. “My friend’s service dog tried to come up to me, and she would not let him get near,” Suthard continued. “Esther wouldn’t let that dog or any other one near me—I was her man.” Esther soon became Suthard’s new leash on life. His combat injuries had drastically affected the quality of his life and his relationship with his family, he said.
“I can’t bend over, so that kept me from being able to help out around the house or going out at all, really,” Suthard said. “It has been a hell at times.” Suthard was an infantryman, with 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, in Anali, Iraq, when the humvee he was riding in flipped over, crushing him as it trapped him inside. “When it came down, I was trapped inside, and I could not feel my legs for probably 10 to 15 minutes,” Suthard said. “ I remember my thighs nearly touching my face; that’s how crushed I was.” Fetching a pair of slippers or the morning paper is a neat trick to the average dog owner, but to Suthard and his family, it is life changing. “Before Esther came, we always had to keep an eye out for Dean,” said Christy Suthard, Suthard’s wife of 18 years. “He could not get up if he fell, and he could not pick up things that he may need.” The diligence required while “keeping an eye out for” Suthard presented obstacles as Christy also cared for the three of their five children still at home.
“I used to be able to do everything,” said Suthard. “ Now, with Esther, I feel like I can help out again.” The furry caregiver assists Dean as he cleans their home, loads the washing machine, or grabs groceries at the store.
“Now, I can go to my children’s schools and help my wife work through the family schedule,” Suthard said. “Now with Esther helping, we don’t have to stress,” said Christy. “With her at his side, I know that we don’t always need to be there.” Dean’s injuries make just getting out of bed each morning an obstacle, but Esther is at his side first thing in the morning positioning her shaggy back under his numb limbs to help him rotate off of the bed. “We start our day together each day,” Suthard said.
The two get started after everyone leaves their two-story home in a suburb six minutes outside of Atlanta. Eshter helps Suthard down the stairs. She moves with a patient excitement down each step. “Although she is extremely well trained and can do so much, she is still a dog and needs to go out first thing in the morning,” said Suthard. “She also knows going outside means it is time to play with her favorite toy – her orange and blue ball. “Playing fetch gets us both motivated to start our day.” Their friendship helps the duo deal with the unseen obstacles Suthard faces each day. “I suffer from [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] from some of my experiences while deployed,” said Suthard. “She pushes against me when lots of people are around or someone is close behind me. It lets me know she always has my back.” Suthard and Esther’s partnership has allowed them both to enjoy many adventures in the past year, something Dean thought was impossible after his injury. “We have been all over together,” Suthard said. “We went to [Washington], Virginia Beach, [Va.] and Pittsburgh.” “She has changed my life,” Suthard continued. “She goes everywhere with me, and she never wants to leave my side—she is my best friend. Esther also helps the Suthard’s youngest daughter, 5-year-old Katrina. “All of my children have had issues with speech,” Suthard said. “I spend time teaching (Katrina) to give commands to Esther. It is really good practice for my daughter, because Esther can be a little temperamental at times and will only respond to commands if you say it right.” As Eshter teaches Katrina, she is also training to keep her own skills sharp and learn new ones.
“I was amazed at everything she can do,” said Christy. “Currently, we are working on teaching her silent commands so it will be easier for her to understand orders. We also train her to upkeep the skills she knows that we don’t usually do, so she can maintain them.” It has been nearly two years since that shaggy dog on the concrete floor journeyed from the pound, to prison to find her home as a part of the Suthard family. “(Esther) is our spoiled, rotten child,” Christy said. “My 15-year-old daughter calls her sissy. She is the first one everyone goes to see when they come in the house.” Esther was a dog at the end of her leash, but through training and helping humans she has found purpose and love. “She helps our whole family,” said Suthard. ““She knows when someone is upset. She will lay her head on their lap to let us know she loves us all.”