Animal Tales: Nonprofit matches veterans, pets in need

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POWNAL — For years, veteran Steve Boccanfuso wanted a dog, but it couldn’t be just any dog. 

Both of Boccanfuso’s Achilles tendons had ruptured during his 10 years in the Army, making walking painful and long walks with a dog impossible. He had three young children and was very worried about them getting bitten, so any dog had to be harmless around kids. And one of his children had allergies, so that imaginary doesn’t-need-to-be-walked, good-with-children dog also had to be hypoallergenic.

Boccanfuso and his wife couldn’t imagine such an animal existed. Then they connected with a Maine chapter of Pets for Vets.

A few months after Boccanfuso applied, the nonprofit presented him with Mr. Whiskers, an 8-year-old miniature schnauzer who would rather chase a ball than go for a walk, had known and loved children in his foster home and was not about to aggravate anyone’s allergies.

It was love at first sight.

And soon, the dog proved he was even more than just hypoallergenic and friendly. He was stress relief for the veteran who could use that in his life.

“I come through the door and he’s right there bolting toward the door just yelling hello. I sit there and give him a big scratch on his back and he falls to the floor. Once I let him go, he jumps around and runs around the kitchen and the comes back, looks at me” said Boccanfuso, 44. “It’s a really awesome moment.”

Mr. Whiskers quickly became known as simply Whiskers. Or, more fondly, Whiskey.

Founded in 2009, Pets for Vets matches rescue animals with vets who need a furry friend. The Portland chapter formed in 2013 and serves veterans from Augusta south to New Hampshire. 

Although the pets receive basic training before going to their new homes, they are not service animals. Pets for Vets focuses solely on providing companions — pets that give unconditional love and support, offer stress relief and ease loneliness. They may be trained to maneuver around a wheelchair or ignore a pill accidentally dropped on the floor, but they aren’t trained to guide, detect seizures or help around the house like a service animal. 

“A lot of times, the veterans are looking for that comfort that allows them to get out of the home. When they are feeling stressed or have anxiety, the animal comforts them and helps them connect back to the real world,” said Marianne Quinn, trainer and volunteer. 

Pets for Vets finds the right animal, pays for it, trains it and provides the veteran with a welcome package filled with pet necessities. It occasionally helps with additional food and toys when it gets donations.

The Portland chapter has paired more than a dozen vets with pets since it started. Almost all applicants have sought dogs. One person asked for a cat, but he happened to live too far outside of the chapter’s service area.

“We really would do whatever somebody wanted for a companion animal. Somebody might want a rabbit, we never know. Whatever they thought would be a source of comfort for them,” Quinn said.

The animals come from shelters and rescue groups inside and outside Maine. Pets for Vets trainers and other volunteers are constantly on the lookout for the right match for the vets on their list.

For example: a child-friendly, hypoallergenic dog who didn’t need to be walked.

Whiskers was originally the beloved pet of an elderly woman who lived in a southern state. She moved into a residential care facility that didn’t allow dogs and Whiskers ultimately ended up with rescue group Helping Paws Maine. 

“When he came here with Helping Paws, he was just so perfect. It was like, ‘We have to get him!'” Quinn said.

Whiskers stayed with Quinn for several weeks for basic obedience training and to get acclimated. Then, on the first day of 2016, volunteers drove him to his new home in Pownal.

Boccanfuso knew a dog was coming but little else. The group purposely keeps key details — like the dog’s breed — a surprise so the vet doesn’t have any preconceptions before they meet.

That worked for Boccanfuso. He’d grown up with a Labrador retriever and a Rottweiler, and he’d always seen himself with a medium-size dog. But when Boccanfuso opened his eyes to Whiskers, a small, wiggling ball of fur whose tail seemed to be going a million miles an hour, he was smitten.

“It was kind of like an instant match. It was pretty cool,” Boccanfuso said.

Boccanfuso had been medically discharged from the Army because of the damage to his Achilles tendons making walking painful, but that doesn’t matter to Whiskers, who would rather chase a ball or wander around the yard than trot at the end of a leash. He doesn’t mind the chaos of three children, but he doesn’t add to it either, preferring to bark only when he needs to alert someone to a problem. He loves sticking close to Boccanfuso.

And Boccanfuso loves that he does.

“I can’t thank Pets for Vets enough for doing what they did,” Boccanfuso said.

For any vets interested, he has one piece of advice: Go for it.  

“You have to be open to having that dog that’s going to be there for you,” he said. 

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

Army veteran Steve Boccanfuso and his 9-year-old son, Cooper, play ball with Whiskers at their Pownal home. Because walking is painful for Boccanfuso, he needed a dog that didn’t have to be taken for long walks. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Whisky chases a ball thrown by his owner, Steve Boccanfuso, at his home in Pownal. Whisky’s real name is Mr. Whiskers, but Steve calls him Whiskey. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Steve Boccanfuso holds his dog, Mr. Whiskers, on their match day in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Pets for Vets)

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