Portland fundraiser provides paws to honor service dogs

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PORTLAND — Dawson, a 10-month-old hound mix, is beloved in the Harrison home of Ray MacGregor and his family.

Dawson is also a service dog from K9s on the Front Line, who helps MacGregor cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It may sound over the top, but in some ways, it is a matter of life and death,” MacGregor said. “I’ve been to the edge with my thoughts. (Dawson) helps you center yourself or find a place where you are not as numb.”

Work by K9s on the Front Line and America’s VetDogs will be saluted Saturday, April 8, at the first-ever Planet Dog Ball. The black tie optional and decidedly canine cozy fundraiser will be from 5:30-9 p.m. at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, 157 High St.

“We decided as part of 20th anniversary to highlight the work the service programs do,” Planet Dog CEO Colleen McCracken said March 27. “It is about getting the word out and getting people to understand what these organizations do for people in need, especially the veterans.”

The Westbrook-based Planet Dog Foundation has long been making grants to service dog organizations, but McCracken said the ball and its special guest, Charlie, of the “Today Show” segment “Puppy With a Purpose” will illuminate how critical service dogs are to their handlers.

Organizers expect at least 30 dogs to attend, and have invited well-behaved canines to come enjoy the treat bar and available doggy daycare. Tickets are on sale at bit.ly/2mN2Rwp. All proceeds from the event will go to the two service dog nonprofits.

MacGregor, 33, served eight years in the Air Force. He said Dawson helps with his anxiety.

Dawson is trained to respond to the emotional triggers of MacGregor’s PTSD. If he becomes fidgety, Dawson will climb on his lap and settle him down by nuzzling and licking him. In stores, he will sit behind him to give him more personal space in lines.

“Because he is a puppy and kind of high energy, he kind of gets me up right now,” MacGregor said. “He is just a fun guy, he keeps it light.”

Dogs are also trained to turn on lights in darkened rooms, wake handlers at the first signs of nightmares and remind veterans to take medications, K9s on the Front Line Vice President Linda Murray said March 23.

Murray said K9s on the Front Line are often referred by loved ones or family members, but veterans meet the dog before it is adopted.

“It doesn’t matter what the breed is, we select based on confidence, drive, and emotional intelligence,” she said.

Portland-based North Edge K9, co-owned by physician Hagen Blaszyk and city police officer Christian Stickney, provides 16 weeks of training with a staff that includes six current or former K-9 police officers.

“It is a huge accomplishment for (veterans), 16 weeks of facing your demons every week,” Murray said. “You are letting people know what your triggers are, it serves dually as group therapy and having the accomplishment of saying, ‘I did this.’”

Blaszyk is the K9s on the Front Line Strategic Development, Business Operations and Medical Affairs director, while former Navy Seal Chris Tyll directs the nonprofit’s veteran affairs. Murray directs marketing, outreach and public relations.

The dogs and training are free for vets, but K9s on the Front Line insists trainers get paid.

“It is hard to get the veteran to ask for help,” Tyll said March 23. “Chances are you know somebody or perceive somebody who has had it worse than you.”

There is also off site training at some local businesses, and more than 30 veterans have been matched with dogs in about a year, Murray said.

The dogs become part of the family, but the bond is deeper, Tyll said.

“There is a complete and utter partnership in every sense of the word.” he said. 

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Ray MacGregor of Harrison meets Dawson, the shelter dog he is training to become his service dog through K9s on the Front Line.

Nadia was placed with a veteran after adoption from a shelter and local training as a service dog. Linda Murray of K9s on the Front Line said dogs are chosen for temperament as opposed to breed.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.