MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- With his golden hair flowing in the wind, he sprints around the field searching for his cellular phone. From across the way, he spots it on the corner of the picnic table and dashes to retrieve it. Pleased with himself, he struts over to Gunnery Sgt. Patrick J. Koch and drops it in his lap before sitting down next to him.
Patriot, a 73-pound Golden Retriever, demonstrates the techniques he has worked on for the last year and yes, he does have his own phone.
“You can see he gets really excited when he performs. He still has that puppy mentality,” said the staff noncommissioned officer in charge, Reconnaissance Training Platoon, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion. “It’s good for Patriot to show off a little.”
Less than one year ago, Patriot entered Koch’s life as an untrained little ball of fluff but now he can perform a number of useful tasks.
Patriot was one of six puppies from his litter to begin training as a disabled person service dog. He and his littermates hail from New Horizons Service Dogs, based in Orange City, Fla., and they rely on puppy handlers, much like Koch, to teach them their trade.
In Koch’s care, Patriot graduated from three separate obedience classes, along with a variety of other classes designed to improve service dogs, as well as the handlers.
“The classes don’t necessarily teach the dogs; instead, they teach the handlers,” said Koch. “The classes are only making me better for the next dog I work with.”
The classes are also good because they helped Patriot become accustomed to other dogs and people. Socialization is the biggest key when raising the dogs, Koch said. The dogs need to be able to work well with people since that is what they are being raised for.
“When Patriot was a pup, he was shy,” Koch said. “Now he’s not afraid of anything, he’s a ham.”
At the grocery store and out in town, people always want to stop and touch Patriot and sometimes it can distract him, Koch said. “The store was hard for him to get used to because of all the noise and people.”
Koch recalls when he and Patriot went to dinner at a nice restaurant. The manager came out and asked about Patriot and why he was in the restaurant. After explaining that he is a service dog, the establishment was very welcoming and accepting of him.
“You educate the public on what the dogs are all about,” said Koch.
Fast food places are the ones that have a negative reaction when the two of them go in, he said. There always seems to be someone ready to jump over the counter and try and tell Koch that Patriot can not be in there.
When Patriot is on duty or training, he wears a green vest with a nametape sewn to the side.
“Each morning I take off his vest when we get to work and he walks around to people and greets them,” he said. “He’s a morning dog!”
“If he sees a Marine running, he’ll run after him, not in aggression, but to give him company,” Koch said. “We go jogging together.”
One of the minor challenges Koch has faced is sometimes Patriot wants to play more than train.
He receives between 15 to 30 minutes a day of training, and Koch conducts the training as if he were disabled, so Patriot benefits the most he can from it.
He trains with medicine bottles, keys and a phone because those are things he is going to need to be able to get for someone who may have a disability.
“I’ll say ‘Emergency, phone’ and he will go find the phone for me and place it in my lap,” Koch said.
When Patriot completes one of his missions correctly he is rewarded with a treat.
Another way for Patriot to be rewarded is with the celebration of his birthday. Koch is going to make an ice cream and dog food cake.
“If I ever eat vanilla ice cream, I always make sure to give him a scoop in his bowl,” he said. “He loves it.”
The Orlando, Fla., native commented that the vets say a bit of vanilla ice cream and yogurt are not bad for dogs.
“Every night I eat some yogurt and Patriot will lay with his head on my lap until I am done,” Koch said. “Then he gets to lick the container, it’s our ritual.”
Koch and Patriot are moving to Florida in April, after Koch retires. Patriot will continue to be trained by the Marine gunnery sergeant for another six months.
“I will continue to volunteer to train them [service dogs], and help out other people with training and fundraisers.”
The year-old Golden Retriever will then go to the advanced training dog college where he will perfect and master his skills.
Dog college is set up for disabled people and the dogs live there throughout the entire course.
Candidates who are interested in getting one of the dogs have to go to the facility for a week, where they will be paired up with a dog to see if they are compatible.
“My ultimate goal is to have Patriot placed with a disabled veteran,” said Koch. “I have no say in where he goes, but it would be nice to give back to the service.”
“It will be hard to let him go,” he said. “I have to focus on the mission at hand, and the mission at hand is for him to help someone with a disability.”
For more information on service dogs or how to become a puppy handler, please visit www.newhorizonsservicedogs.org.