BENNINGTON, Vt. (NEWS10) — Every day in this country a startling number of veterans and first responders take their own lives. The stress that comes with the job is often too much to bear. In Bennington, Vermont, those vets, police and fire personnel have someplace to turn for help.

Michelle LeBlanc runs a program called Paws and Boots, matching people who are dealing with PTSD with a service dog. As LeBlanc explains it, “We started very simple, training dogs in fields, parking lots, Lowes, Home Depot, Walmart, any place we could find space to teach and train.”

man and his dog
A recent graduate of the program.

Michelle runs the program because she understands the stress level that the military or working in police and fire can bring. “I was in the military service for six years after college, then I spent 22 years with the Vermont State Police,” she explains.

Being a canine officer with the police, she knew the value her dog had in helping her cope with stress, so she started this program eight years ago. Since then, a number of veterans and first responders have taken the extensive course and graduated.

As Michelle explains it, “Sometimes they can use their own dog if the dog is right for this kind of service. Other times we get rescues. Either way that dog bonds with them and helps them deal with stress.”

We spoke to several veterans in the program right now and they couldn’t speak more highly of how this has helped them. Gwen Mattison summed it up this way, “Oh man, I wouldn’t make it if it wasn’t for him.”

Dave Hurne added, when speaking of his dog Gemma, “I have a strength she gave me, a courage she gave me. She was my rock.”

Michelle LeBlanc hugging
Many who leave Michelle LeBlanc’s program feel they have a new lease on life.

What happens is, the dog is taught to recognize when their human partner is feeling stress. When the dog senses the stressful situation, they bark, jump up, or whine; anything to distract their owner from the situation. We watched it happen firsthand during one of our interviews.

If you have any interest in the program, they do accept students from all over the Capital Region. Just know this is not a weekend thing or short commitment, graduates and their dogs take months to learn the program and lessons.

Is it worth it? Just ask Michelle’s mother Ann. She told me, “I’ve watched older adults walk up to my daughter and say, you saved the life of my 40-year-old son with this program.”

Now that is what you call a “ringing” endorsement.