When Ricky Oubre retired from his 30 year career with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office – 20 of them spent as a dog trainer – he felt the need to continue lending a helping hand.
Oubre found just that through his work with the Companions for Life program, a nonprofit that provides military veterans with service dogs that, as the name suggests, provide companionship for a group of people in the country who truly need it.
Last year, Oubre took leadership of the program, which was created by local businessman Bill Barse. Prior to that, he was training dogs for service on his own, but said the joint effort with Barse has been a natural fit.
The impetus for his training efforts, he said, came after Hurricane Katrina.
“It really let me know how blessed I am to have what I have,” Oubre said. “I have a great life and a great family, and I felt like I needed to do something to give back.”
During his years with the Sheriff’s Office, Oubre became very aware of the issues veterans can experience following their service, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Oubre himself is a former Marine, thus the cause was near and dear to him.
“After Iraq and Afghanistan, you started really seeing the benefits of (what having a service dog) can do for them,” Oubre said.
His start in dog-training came completely by accident.
“It really started as a joke,” Oubre said. “At one point, my partner and I pulled up and found $675,000 of drug money. We seized it and later on, our sheriff at the time asks, ‘What can I do for y’all?’ I joked about getting us a drug sniffing dog … a week or two later, he tells me our dog has been ordered and we had to go pick it up.”
But it turned into a labor of love, one that led to his eventual involvement with Companions for Life.
The Companions for Life program takes rescue dogs and sends them to a correctional facility in Angie where a group of inmates train the dogs for service. That process takes between six and 10 weeks.
“The benefit is huge,” Oubre said. “The dogs are rescues. You’re helping give the inmates purpose and the veteran and dog work as a team to help one another. Off the bat, you’re able to rescue a dog that very well may have been euthanized otherwise.”
Such was the case with Sgt. Robert Wright of New Orleans, a Vietnam veteran. Wright was suffering mightily with depression and PTSD.
“Things were getting really out of hand with me. I was having these long, bad dreams,” Wright said. “Then my doctor told me she wanted to get me in touch with a man named Bill Barse who might have a solution for me.”
Wright readily agreed — his depression was adversely affecting his day to day life and he said he needed a change. He ended up at the East Bank Animal Shelter of the Jefferson Parish SPCA last year and was introduced to the dog who would become his new best friend.
“They opened the door and here she comes,” Wright said of Penny, his soon-to-be service dog. “She was just beautiful.
I thought, ‘this couldn’t be for me.’ They left us together and we just made an instant bond with one another.”
Wright said the two have helped enrich the lives of the other.
It was once thought that Penny’s disposition wouldn’t make her a suitable companion for anyone, Wright said.
“She had some social issues, but man, when you see her and Robert together, they just click,” Oubre said. “It’s almost like she can read his mind, like she knows exactly what he needs.”
Wright said Penny is able to calm him when he gets anxious or disgusted with something, comparing the dog’s instincts to a mother with a child.
Penny also is extremely protective — and effective. On one occasion, a would-be robbery was thwarted when Penny chased off a man who broke the lock on Wright’s front-yard fence.
“Good ol’ Penny scared him right off,” Wright recalled. “She can tell when trouble is coming.”
On another occasion, Wright suffered a heart attack. Penny got the attention of a neighbor, likely saving Wright’s life by doing so.
When Wright needed bypass surgery, Penny was there to nurse him through the ordeal, emotionally.
“These service animals, you wouldn’t believe what they’re able to fix,” Wright said. “You have to see her in action to believe it. It’s not just me. When she sees anyone … it can be at Walmart, Popeyes … she senses when someone is having it rough and needs a smile put on their faces. And she’ll go up to them and she’ll get that smile.
“With Penny around, I’m able to address the world.”Oubre said Wright’s experience with Penny isn’t uncommon.
“There are a number of veterans just like Robert, introverted, shy … they may have issues even getting out the house … but that dog gives them confidence,” Oubre said.
“They offer never-ending love. That bond builds and you can see a transformation. The dog’s at their side and they trust one another.”
Another part of Companions for Life is a regular coordinated get-together for the veterans and their service dogs. This week, the group met at Lafreniere Park.
“They talk and socialize about their shared experiences, and it’s been really great for everyone involved,” Oubre said.
For more information on Companions for Life, visitdoggoneexpress.com or e-mail LWilliamBarse@aol.com.