Warrior Canine Connection: Veterans recover from war, one dog at a time

Every week, Labrador and Golden Retrievers are changing the lives of veterans with visible and invisible wounds at Asheville and Hendersonville area training centers.

Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), a national program based in Maryland, established a branch in Asheville in 2018. Using a unique model known as “Mission Based Trauma Recovery,” WCC enlists recovering veterans in a mission of training future service dogs for their fellow combatants. By interacting with the canines as they journey from puppyhood through training to adult service dogs, volunteer veterans called Warrior Trainers benefit from a highly-therapeutic animal-human connection. Read the full story in the Times-News here.

WCC Bench Madness – 2023

UPenn launches therapy dog program to assist America’s heroes

You may notice more dogs on the street as you walk around University City, thanks to a new service dog program launched at the University of Pennsylvania that provides military members with a therapy dog.

The program, a partnership with the nonprofit, Warrior Canine Connection, describes its work as “mission-based trauma recovery,” where Veterans get to interact with dogs from birth through adulthood, training them to act as service dogs for fellow service men and women. Watch the full story on Fox 29 Philadelphia.

Local content creators raise money for Warrior Canine Connection

Army helicopter pilot turned content creator Kevin Bubolz and his dog Ellie have amassed a strong following on social media of more than 8-million people, and they are using that following to help with a good cause. Kevin and Ellie joins Good Day DC to talk about how they are raising money for the Warrior Canine Connection. Watch the full story on Fox 5 Washington DC.

Warrior Spotlight: April Ames-Chase

Today we introduce you to U.S. Air Force Major (ret.) April Ames-Chase. She’s a Veteran who Warrior Canine Connection (WCC) had the good fortune to meet through its Mission Based Trauma Recovery (MBTR) training program in partnership with Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). We are privileged to share her story.

April Ames-Chase was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force nine months after graduating from nursing school. Her four older brothers were all in the Air Force, so it was a big draw for her—to follow in their footsteps.

April spent 20 years in the Air Force as a registered nurse, which she says, “was the experience of a lifetime.” Her work took her to many duty stations both in the U.S. and abroad, including the United Kingdom, Korea, Japan, and Iraq.

Iraq was very different from previous assignments, as her time there was during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She worked long, grueling hours at the hospital on base in Balad, where they were under constant mortar fire, and April says she saw too many combat casualties and often feared for her own life.

“I can tell you it was the camaraderie of fellow medics that got me through it because we all had one mission in mind, and that was to save every life that we could no matter how injured they were,” said April. “Our mission was to save their lives and send them back to the United States once they were stabilized.”

She says those four and a half months in Balad had a profound effect on her.

“As a nurse, when I came back from Iraq, I was a changed person,” said April. “My role changed to an administrator, and after my experience in Iraq, I saw it was a duty that I didn’t want to do anymore; I wanted to be able to go back to mental health and nursing where I could affect change within individuals and put my energy toward helping Veterans.”

The timing felt right, so April retired after 20 years of service to do the nursing work she loves. She’s now a Behavioral Health Nurse Specialist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland where she works with patients, their families, and staff members.

April got invited to attend a WWP event and continued participating in several community projects, including laying wreaths in the cemetery, along with other events throughout the year.

“I just felt a connection with the individuals in Wounded Warrior Project by attending the events,” said April.

She saw information about WWC’s eight-week MBTR program and signed up.

“Oh, I loved it,” said April. “I traveled from Silver Spring, Md. there every week, which was quite a distance but well worth it. I looked forward to it every Saturday. The highlight was on my last day, taking Dollie to Starbucks with Emily and her dog. The dogs are loving, non-judgmental, and being in mental health, I know they raise our endorphin levels along with providing comfort and happiness—they’re life-changing.”

April continues to attend WWP events while balancing her work with finishing up her dissertation for her PhD, which focuses on the adaptation of female Veterans after returning home from Iraq—a subject which hits home for her both personally and professionally.

“Being in behavioral health, I’ve sought my own help where I’ve needed it and programs like those Warrior Canine Connection and Wounded Warrior Project offer, have been instrumental,” said April. “Whether it’s through interacting with the dogs or helping others by training future service dogs, or attending Wounded Warrior Project’s programs and events, it’s been so important for me to have these connection points and outlets for my own mental health. I highly encourage other Veterans who may be hesitant to get involved—they stand to benefit in ways they never realized.”

Pups With A Purpose: This group is helping veterans through the companionship of furry friends

War takes a physical, emotional, and mental toll on someone that only combat veterans understand. In fact, when many veterans return home, they have trouble adjusting to the life they used to know. That is where Warrior Canine Connection comes in. Watch the full story on RFD TV here.

The Blue Angels Foundation Gifts $50,000 to Warrior Canine Connection

Warrior Canine Connection (WCC) team members, along with WCC Veteran Service Dog Teams Ryan Boyles and Tommy II, and Jim Hancock and Izzy, were guests at a recent Blue Angels Foundation’s (BAF) reception. During the event, Dr. Mark Mykityshyn, Vice President of the BAF Board of Directors, introduced WCC as one of its operational partners and the recipient of a $50,000 gift to help expand the nonprofit’s programming.

“I know I speak for our entire team at the Blue Angels Foundation when I say we are proud to support Warrior Canine Connection because it provides life-changing programming for Veterans and their families,” said Dr. Mykityshyn. “We know service dogs are a crucial tool to combating PTSD, and the unique Mission Based Trauma Recovery training that Warrior Canine Connection provides offers a real therapeutic benefit and is a valuable resource to helping Veterans in their recovery.”

The Blue Angels Foundation is the charitable arm of the Blue Angels Association and is led by former members of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. The BAF’s mission is to have a positive impact on resolving post-traumatic stress among wounded Veterans by saving lives and promoting positive transitions for wounded Veterans and their families. With research and evidence pointing to the positive impact service dogs have on Service Members and Veterans, the BAF chose to support WCC.

Each year, the BAF aims to expand its footprint and impact in critical areas facing wounded Veterans and their families. Key areas of support include transitional housing, counseling, PTSD resolution, life skills, and providing employment opportunities for transitioning wounded Veterans.

New Faces at WCC: Leilani Shore and Riley Spickler

Please join us in welcoming two new members to the WCC pack! Both Leilani Shore, puppy program outreach coordinator, and Riley Spickler, puppy development assistant, joined WCC in December helping to fulfill important roles — learn more about out new team members!

Leilani Shore, Puppy Program Outreach Coordinator

An animal lover at heart, Leilani has always gravitated to dogs and horses. While attending Ohio University, she also worked for an equine program that supported Veterans through therapeutic horsemanship.

After graduating with a dual bachelor’s in psychology and animal science, she went on to work for an equine program that provided support for kids in foster care. She then worked for an animal biotech company that provided at-home cat DNA tests; the results are used to give owners a comprehensive report on their cats.

When she saw the opening at WCC for a Puppy Program Outreach Coordinator, it was one she knew she couldn’t pass up.

“I love my job,” said Leilani. “It’s not very often people can say that.”

Although still new to the role, Leilani works directly with WCC’s Puppy Parent program to help recruit new volunteers and support those already providing crucial aid and care for its service dogs in training.

“The Puppy Parents are awesome … it’s amazing that people are willing to volunteer their time and do what it takes to raise these dogs for us; we couldn’t do what we do without our Puppy Parents,” said Leilani. “I’m always in awe of them with how they sacrifice their time for us and help us out.”

When not working, Leilani enjoys spending time with her two dogs, Luna and Rosco, and her two horses, Ramsey and Maverick.


Riley Spickler, Puppy Development Assistant

Also joining WCC in December is Riley Spickler, our new Puppy Development Assistant. In her role, Riley works in WCC’s puppy department and helps with the socialization and care of WCC’s older pups and eventually be taking on the position of boots rank instructor.

A Maryland native, Riley graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a bachelor’s in animal and avian sciences. During her sophomore year, she helped co-raise and sit service dogs for the Guide Dog Foundation and has spent countless hours walking and pet sitting dogs since then. She was also very involved in her campus ministry during college and loves connecting with new people.

“I have had a long-time dream of working with Veterans and service dogs, so this job is a perfect combination of both,” said Riley.

Riley’s supervisor says she has made an immediate impact in her new role.

Outside of work, Riley can often be found attending University of Maryland basketball games, spending time with friends and she also hosts trivia at a local brewery.

WCC’s Manion: From Service Dog in Training to Search & Rescue

While breeding, training and placing service dogs with Veterans is one of Warrior Canine Connection’s (WCC) primary objectives, not all dogs are an ideal fit for the job. In fact, only 35-40% (on average) of a WCC litter will end up placed as a service dog. So, what happens to the rest of the litter? WCC also places military family support dogs and facility dogs, and other dogs are considered career change or release dogs with priorities set for military families. Whether they choose a career of service or not, WCC’s dogs all end up in a happy home.  

To graduate from WCC’s service dog training, a dog must pass all of the necessary health tests as well as their training courses. As our excellent trainers get to know the dogs better through training and socializing, they are able to understand what a dog is good at and what they need to improve on. Our trainers have special bonds with each and every dog that comes through the program, and helping the dogs determine their future is an essential objective. 

WCC’s Manion, named in honor of U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Travis Manion, is a great example of a successful career change. One of the first traits that began to emerge with Manion was his work drive.  

“Manion’s motivation to serve others is his most unique trait,” said Manion’s first puppy parent, Patrick Siemon, who spent seven months helping raise Manion. “He has always been so focused on whoever has the other end of his leash and is always ready to work. He looks at whoever he is training with like they are the only person on earth and rarely takes his eyes off of them.”  

When Manion was around 9 months old, his service dog training began. WCC trainer Jen Blessing had the honor of being Manion’s main handler and trainer while he was at WCC.  

“When Manion first got here, he was a crazy puppy with no boundaries,” said Jen. It didn’t take long for Jen’s training to start making a difference, though. “It was a little rough for the first couple of weeks, but then Manion really snapped into it. He just needed a little help.”  

Before long, Manion was paws deep in training, even accompanying Jen to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center “almost every day.” 

As the training progressed, Jen noticed that while Manion was enthusiastic in trying to learn, his house manners stilled needed some work. He was having a tough time breaking his habit of counter surfing for food.  

“He’s so smart that he learned how to get away with things, and his drive for food beat everything else. He had an over-arousal with food,” said Jen. “Bad house manners are one of the pretty clear indicators that a dog may not be a good fit as a service dog,” she explained.  

Two things had become clear to Jen: Manion had a high work drive, and Manion was food driven. After a stall in Manion’s progress in the training, WCC decided an environmental reset could help fully unlock Manion’s potential, so he was brought to WCC’s Asheville, North Carolina, location. There, he continued to show a strong desire to work, but his endless stamina and devotion to food were still holding him back from his service dog training. 

After about six months in Asheville, Manion returned to WCC’s Healing Quarters in Boyds for an evaluation. The trainers at WCC collectively decided that Manion’s high energy and house manners may not be ideal for a service dog.  

The next step was to figure out what career would be a good fit for Manion, and Jen shared her input with the other WCC trainers: “He needs to have a job. He loves to work and is way too smart. Manion needed to be placed with an active person who will keep him stimulated. He clearly loves to work.”  

Among the possibilities WCC trainers discussed was the career of being a search and rescue dog. “Work drive and toy drive has to be so high for a search and rescue dog,” continued Jen, and Manion had both of those traits. “We reached out to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), and they asked for videos of Manion doing certain things, like trying to find a ball in a field, so we laid a foundation with his toy drive. They ended up liking him.”  

Manion made his career change and joined SDF, where he has fit right in. His work drive, toy drive and motivation for food made him the perfect fit for SDF. He has already assisted in multiple search and rescue missions, including one in Florida after Hurricane Ian devasted the state. 

Jen and the rest of WCC continues to follow Manion’s journey with pride, joy and love. Even Manion’s first puppy parent, Patrick, still closely follows Manion’s growth with SDF. “When WCC told me they thought being a search dog would be a better fit for him due to his high energy, it made sense. I can’t wait to see what Manion and the Search Dog Foundation will get to do next to help others!” 

You can follow Manion’s journey by following The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation on social media and Manion’s own Instagram page.  

Paw-some Holiday Gift Ideas to Spoil Your Furry Friend

Let’s face it, our dogs don’t take a day off — they’re our best friends 365 days out of the year, so it’s only natural that many of us want to spoil them during the holiday season. To help you decide on a gift for your special four-legged friend, we rounded up some ideas from members of Warrior Canine Connection’s pack that are creative, thoughtful, and yes, budget-conscious.

Toys, Toys and more Toys

WCC Service Dog Training Instructor Michele Tate, who works with WCC’s Asheville programs, loves the Starmark chew toys for several reasons.

“I really like this toy for pet parents because it has inserts you can buy that are super tasty, and it also works great with applesauce, peanut butter, yogurt, kibble or other treats as a fun frozen toy that can help enrich your dog both mentally and physically.” 

WCC Program Director and Service Dog Training Instructor at the Palo Alto VA Alexis Baker, shared a few toys that are personal favorites of WCC’s Piccone, a service dog in training she previously worked with in Calif.

“Piccone loved to walk around and squeak this rubber chicken! It provided him with tons of entertainment, and he liked giving it to me to squeak and give back to him, and even squeaking it together!

Another favorite for many is Hugglehounds® pet toys. The organization is also a supporter of WCC, and featured two of WCC’s service dogs — Luke and Tommy II — in adorable, plush miniatures, which are for sale here. 

WCC trainers recommend never leaving toys with unsupervised pets.

Special note: If purchasing gifts on Amazon, be sure to elect Warrior Canine Connection as your charity of choice on Amazon Smiles! The AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5% of the purchase price your eligible purchases to WCC. To-date, AmazonSmiles has helped raise more than $29,000 for WCC.

Tasty Treats
Trainer Michele Tate also recommends these Churro Cheese Dog Treats based on her experience with her own dogs.  

“I love these because I have a dog who loves to chew and a dog who hates to chew, and they both enjoy these. They help clean up the farther back molars as well and they aren’t stinky and don’t leave any yucky residue or stains as they consume them.”  

Safety device
Another great idea includes a practical gift that is useful and will help keep your dog safe.

Alexis Baker shared one of her favorite safety items — a rechargeable light- up collar, which she says, “is great to help your dog be more visible at night!”

Gifts for Humans, too
Don’t forget to treat the humans in your life or perhaps yourself, too, with WCC’s annual holiday ornament. The 2022 edition features two options — a black or yellow Lab — with the WCC logo and they are available for purchase on the WCC website.

Another favorite is the WCC calendar, and 2023 is now available! Complete with adorable photos of WCC dogs; a new image will bring a smile to your face each month. Check out the 2023 WCC calendars here.

Happy holidays and happy shopping ahead!