Along one of the long concrete hallways in the VA hospital in Montrose, New York, three Veterans lean down to greet a friend. Licking and panting, the friend slobbers a kiss on each Veteran — and could not be happier to do so. His warm, wet hospitality is only impaired by the length of the leash held by his handler, a uniformed officer who stands and watches.
For VA Police Sgt. Josie Graham and her working dog, Hunter, a large black Labrador retriever, displays of warmth like this are routine occurrences in the two hospitals and seven clinics of the VA Hudson Valley Health Care System. They greet anyone who’ll stop and say “Hello.” However, Hunter and Graham are also performing another, more important mission for the VA Police: deterrence.
“The visual presence of the canine is just as valuable as helping to find narcotics,” Graham said. She added people seeing the dog helps stop crime. “If they’re up to no good and see the dog, they usually turn the other way.”
Hunter’s primary job involves his sniffer. With a keen nose and about six months’ worth of training, Hunter helps find patients who may wander away from the Montrose in-patient facilities. He also searches VA grounds and facilities for cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.
Graham, a U.S. Army Veteran from Newburgh, New York, has been a dog handler for about seven years. She grew up with a dog and wanted to become a Veterinarian. She joined the Army and worked as a veterinary technician for three years before retraining and joining the military police believing she would get her dog handling start there. She didn’t.
After the Army, she started with the VA Police. It took about six years, but she got her shot to be a dog handler with a sharp German shepherd named Bayne.
She and Bayne were celebrities in the Hudson Valley going to schools, visiting Boy and Girl Scout troops and other community organizations. Unlike military dog handlers and their canines, Bayne (and now Hunter) lived with Graham full time.
“People get bound to their pets, but I have an animal with me all the time. Just by his mere presence, he could potentially save my life whether he does anything or not. I’m responsible if something happens to him,” Graham said.
Something did happen: Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, a diagnosis dropped on the duo in 2014. Similar to ALS, it’s an incurable disease that attacked Bayne’s spinal cord. His decline was quick. At one point, Graham carried the shepherd around in a harness.
“To see that dog go from being so healthy to having to carry him around …” Graham said, her eyes welling with tears. “It’s hard because you want them around but you want to give them dignity in death because they gave you so much in life. It was just hard to let him go.”
Bayne retired in August and, in the winter of 2014, Bayne died. Hunter came along a few months before and helped ease the transition from one dog to the other. Graham said the adjustment took time.
Steadily, the two grew close. In the course of that time, Hunter received two months of narcotics training from the Yonkers Police Department in Yonkers, New York, and his patrol skills from the Town of Poughkeepsie, New York, Police Department. He was ready for duty.
“He picked up on the training a lot quicker than the other dogs, so it was nice to see that,” she said.
VA Police Chief Brian Pack said the VA community partnership with all of the surrounding law enforcement agencies is a benefit for both sides.
“We rely on them for assistance with law enforcement. The initial and monthly in-service training of the VA Police K-9 unit enforces the liaison and the commitment of the law enforcement agencies to share resources,” Pack said. “This is important in today’s world.”
Graham said she knows the work she’s doing has an impact. She told the story of her sister attending the 2015 funeral of a Veteran who lived in one of VA Hudson Valley’s Community Living Centers. When the funeral services ended, the family approached Graham’s sister.
“They wanted her to thank me for bringing by Bayne to his room because the Veteran loved when he came by,” Graham said. “When you do those things, sometimes you don’t realize the impact. I’d only met the family one or two times.”
With a bit more than seven years as a dog handler, Graham doesn’t see herself doing anything else, and doing it for the safety of Veterans makes it doubly rewarding.
“Once you do this work, it’s in your blood. Sometimes I think I was meant to do this. A lot of dog handlers feel that way. It changes your life, you know? It really changes your life.”
About the author: Jason Tudor is a public affairs officer with VA Hudson Valley Health Care System