When Lower 9th Ward native and Vietnam veteran Robert Wright walked into the East Bank Shelter of the Jefferson SPCA last year, he readily admits he was at the end of his rope.
“I was suffering from depression and PTSD,” he said. “I wasn’t taking care of myself, even basic hygiene, and my house was a mess. I stayed to myself most of the time and I was really going downhill fast.”
But then a cage door opened and within moments, Wright had a brown furry head in his lap.
“She was just beautiful — pure joy,” Wright said of his first encounter with Penny, the service dog provided to him by Companions for Life, a local nonprofit that provides veterans with exactly that.
“For the past five or six years we’ve been taking rescue dogs who fit the personality traits we look for — friendly, sociable, easygoing — and sending them off to B.B. Rayburn Correctional Facility in Angie, Louisiana, where we have six to nine inmates who train them,” said Ricky Oubre, who runs the Companions for Life program. “The inmates spend six to 10 weeks training the dogs, and then they come back to us.”
The cause is close to Oubre’s heart in multiple ways — a Marine Corps veteran, Oubre spent 20 of his 30 years in law enforcement in St. Charles Parish as a dog trainer. He says his involvement with Companions for Life over the past year has allowed him to see so many lives transformed.
“On the inmate side, we are giving them a purpose and a skill,” he said. “One of the female inmates we trained actually started her own dog-training business when she was released. And for the veterans, well, you just have to see it to believe it. The transformation in them is just incredible.”
Wright happily counts himself among the program’s success stories.
“Penny has changed my whole life,” he said. “She’s made me responsible. I take care of myself now. I take care of my house. I’m part of my community. I’ve even become an ordained deacon in my church.”
A big part of the change, Wright said, is that he feels safe again.
“Penny makes sure any environment I’m in is safe,” he said. “She won’t relax until she knows that.”
He credits the dog with saving his life twice in the past year.
“I had a heart attack a little while back, and she actually went and alerted a neighbor,” he said. “And then one time I was out walking with her and a man tried to rob me. Before he could even get the gun out she was on him. He ended up running away.”
More than just protection, the service dogs can be trained to provide an array of custom services.
“We have one veteran who is diabetic, so his dog will cue him if he’s having low blood sugar,” Oubre said. “And another has mobility issues, so her dog is trained to brace her as she stands up out of the wheelchair. You should see them walk up stairs together — it’s incredible.”
Every Tuesday afternoon, the veterans and their dogs meet up at the East Bank Shelter to work with the dogs and socialize. Oubre said the bonds formed aren’t just human-to-canine.
“We have anywhere from four to 15 vets that come each week, and once they connect, that old military mentality, that sense of brotherhood, kicks in again. We’ve got everyone from vets in their early 20s to Vietnam vets like Robert.”
The secret to the program’s success, Oubre said, is simple.
“The relationships created here with these animals are about complete and total trust and unconditional love,” he said.
Wright puts it into even simpler terms.
“I take care of her, and she takes care of me.”