Veterans in San Mateo Graduate from Veterans Treatment Court Program

It’s not every day you see dogs in the San Mateo County Superior Court, that is, until recently. They’re part of Warrior Canine Connection’s service dog training program — one of several community service options available to those involved in the Veterans Treatment Court.

This month, five Veterans who have worked with WCC’s service dogs in training graduated after completing an eight-week course.

“I like to say I’m volunteering but what I don’t tell people is that the dogs are really helping me, said Anzac Houchen, Army Veteran and VTC Program participant. “The benefits of working with the dogs has helped me feel that I’m becoming a functional member of our society and the satisfaction that I get from that is hard to quantify.”

For Veterans like Houchen, the program helps to teach them how to work with service dogs in training, which helps not only to meet their legal community service obligations but also fulfills a time-honored military tradition of Warriors helping Warriors. In doing so, the Veteran can also benefit from skills development in communication, confidence building, accountability, emotional regulation and socialization.

In 2008, states and counties in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs created a system of Veterans Treatment Courts throughout the nation. To date, these VTCs have used treatment to help rehabilitate more than 10,000 Veterans with mental health and/or substance dependence and legal issues.

Judge Jack Grandsaert, who helped start the VTC program in San Mateo County Superior Court in 2012, says the service dog training program has been a great addition to its program.

“The Warrior Canine Connection Program has been an invaluable partner for our VTC,” said Judge Jack Grandsaert, San Mateo County Superior Court. “The beneficial effects that this program has had on our Veterans has been nothing less than spectacular. I cannot imagine a better way for our Veterans to give back to their community than in training these wonderful dogs to serve their disabled brothers and sisters in arms. The time that our Veterans spend with the dogs has been so therapeutic for the Veterans, and so valuable for the disabled Veterans that the dogs will ultimately serve.”

Marine Corps Veteran Kenneth Combs says he enjoyed his experience working with the dogs and learned a lot about himself at the same time.

“The Warrior Canine Connection program is an invaluable program that not only helps the final veterans that receive the animals but everyone who is involved,” said Combs, VTC Program Participant. “I just want to say that this was a life-changing experience for me and it was one of the best things that has also helped turn my life into a happier one. I would wholeheartedly recommend this program to anyone. Especially if you want to learn more about yourself as it will help you understand yourself better as well as others. Overall, I believe this program is amazing and will change the life of any person involved for the better.”

San Mateo County Superior Court is the fourth county in California (in addition to Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco) to offer WCC’s service dog training program as part of its VTC.

Program Manager Jessica Podkulski, WCC, says the program is a real win-win — the Veterans benefit from the training, as do the dogs — who will ultimately go on to assist other Warriors.

“WCC is both proud and thankful for all of the contributions these Veterans have made to training future service dogs for their fellow Veterans,” said Podkulski. “These Veterans have been contributing essential service dog training while also navigating the criminal justice system and shown to be an asset within their communities. This past year, Veterans in this Court have trained the dogs to navigate movie theaters, cafes, large events, court hearings, community centers, and even participated in speaking engagements to help educate community members. Being able to provide a therapeutic community service option for the Veterans in this Court has been a wonderful experience for WCC staff and our service dogs in training. We look forward to continuing our involvement with the San Mateo County VTC.”

In addition to California, Warrior Canine Connection offers service dog training in the Baltimore, Maryland VTC and through partner program, Assistance Dogs of the West, which is based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The WCC VTC Program was developed and implemented thanks in part to a 2017 grant provided by the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The Foundation had provided a previous 2016 grant to WCC to oversee a feasibility plan to use service dogs as a community service option.