The picture of president George H.W. Bush’s dog lying in front of his casket reminded the world of dogs’ unwavering loyalty. Sully, who came to the Bush family from America’s VetDogs, is one extraordinary canine being. Beth Ann Mayer profiles the charity and Sully’s life so far
On Sunday, 2 December, a dog named Sully showed the world something about unconditional love. His handler, former president George H.W. Bush, had died on Friday, Nov. 30 at the age of 94, and Sully lay in front of his casket — by his side through the end. Bush’s spokesman Jim McGrath tweeted a photo with two simple words: “Mission complete.”
Each year, about 70 dogs begin missions like Sully’s as part of America’s VetDogs. Founded in 2003, the non-profit provides highly trained assistance dogs to help veterans lead their lives without boundaries. The dogs and their veteran companions work in tandem every day. The animal can perform tasks such as opening doors and retrieving items off the floor, which applicants may have difficulty doing for themselves because of illness or disability. Unlike pets or emotional support dogs, assistance dogs are generally permitted inside public places under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Bush passed in 1990. The result is a relationship that is so in-sync, a reaction like Sully’s came as no surprise to America’s VetDogs chief programme officer Brad Hibbard.
“It’s…the bond,” Brad says. “I see things out there people talking about dogs being an ‘employee’. That’s not what Sully was, that’s not who Sully is, and it’s not what dogs like him are. It’s a very strong relationship. You can’t make a service dog be a service dog. They have to have that nature, they have to have that desire to do something for people.”
Training starts in prison
The training process ensures the dogs are all in. They are bred to be adaptable, flexible, trainable and healthy. At 15 weeks, the dogs begin a hybrid of prison programmes and weekend puppy raising with a volunteer who is not incarcerated. Thirteen prisons across the eastern seaboard in states including Maryland (where Sully was placed), Florida and Pennsylvania allow inmates to work with a dog along with a professional trainer.
“For some, it may be the first unconditional love they’re receiving,” Brad says. “For others, it’s giving them a purpose. They did whatever they did to land them in that circumstance, but it doesn’t have to define them for the rest of their life.”
On the weekends, a raiser takes the animal to allow it to get used to everyday happenings such as work and restaurants. These are volunteers who are willing to take on animals as their own for more than a year, and what Brad describes as America’s VetDogs’ biggest need: they need these volunteers to help the dogs learn how to react around people and food, so they can act appropriately in public places.
When the dogs reach 15 months, they come to America’s VetDogs’ campus in Smithtown, New York, for formal training. During an approximately 12-week period, they’ll build on the strong foundation they formed with the inmates.
“They may have a fundamental knowledge of retrieve, but then we take that to a whole new level,” Brad says.
In one test, dogs have to pick up 20 articles, such as hammers and items made of paper, cloth and metal. About 60% of the animals make it through to the next phase: matching. Those who don’t often go into MSA security, become a guide dog or begin a programme with another assistance dog organisation. The dogs who do move on are primed to be matched with veterans.
“The real magic is matching,” Brad says. “Matching is the most important thing, because if you don’t give someone the right dog, then the chances for success are lower than if you do.”
America’s VetDogs has about 150 people on its waiting list. Brad says the organisation tries to start with those who have been on it the longest and go from there while keeping in mind the dog’s skills and veteran’s needs and lifestyle. For Bush, Sully was clearly the one.
A dog worthy of a president
“A lot of things lined up in a perfect way and having Sully available was good,” Brad says. “We already knew he was a super-responsive, super-easy-to-control dog. He was a very easy dog to manage, very low energy, very responsive to voice primarily. We knew the president was using a wheelchair at the time, so we knew some of the things Sully would need to be able to do.”
This included having a strong retrieve trait, which Sully was a pro at. Another plus: he was great with guests, and the Bush family often entertained. The two were matched. Typically, veterans come to the New York campus for a training period with the dog, but for security reasons, Brad was part of the team to take Sully – then two years old – to Bush. America’s VetDogs also does this for veterans with medical needs, such as needing to be close to a particular doctor.
But before H.W. Bush even met Sully, he was already thinking about the day they would not be together. Knowing his pup would likely outlive him, Bush wanted to have a plan. He was taken by the work of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. Though, as the owner of Sully, he could do whatever he wanted with him, he knew what it felt like to be born to serve.
After the holidays, Sully will join fellow America’s VetDogs Dillon and Truman on his next mission, where he’ll help wounded soldiers and active military on their roads to recovery.
“It tells you the character of the man, he was already thinking about what would happen to Sully,” Brad says. “He really felt Sully could then have an even bigger impact because he’ll be working with many, many veterans.”
To find out more about America’s VetDogs’ work and to donate, visit vetdogs.org