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Family of veterans and canine companions forms in Sarasota

IslandWalk Veterans will ceremonially present a check to Canines 4 Heroes on May 29.

Sandra LaFlamme uses a wheelchair to demonstrate the abilities of Cowgirl, a service dog.
Sandra LaFlamme uses a wheelchair to demonstrate the abilities of Cowgirl, a service dog.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Tom Evelyn said his dog, a golden retriever named Ansbach whom he trained to provide therapy at nursing homes and hospitals, was always a source of calm for him. He recalled that during one trip to a hospital, a patient in a wheelchair accidentally ran over Ansbach’s tail, but the dog didn’t flinch.

“He looked at me like he was saying, ‘You owe me one,'” Evelyn said.

That dedication to ideal behavior, he said, is the mark of a well-trained animal. Before Ansbach died in September 2022, Evelyn was looking to help provide veterans around the community with a similar experience through service dogs.

It’s something he cannot do alone but has found he can pursue through a group effort, with one veteran’s organization in the community helping another.

Evelyn, who retired from a 28-year military career in 2005, serves on the leadership committee of IslandWalk Veterans, a group within IslandWalk at the West Villages in Venice that was started about seven months ago and represents about 2,500 homes.

As a result of their fundraising efforts, a ceremonial presentation of a check for $10,000 is set to take place at the 6th Annual IslandWalk Car Show, which is being managed by the group for the first time, on May 29, 2023.

After the group decided to host a golf fundraiser, the Veterans Serving Veterans Golf Tournament, in February, Evelyn began seeking an organization it could support. Once he had narrowed the focus to dogs, he finally settled on Canines for Heroes operated by Sarasota’s Mark and Sandra LaFlamme.

It may be a small operation, but that was what appealed to him, as it meant the nonprofit’s focus was entirely local.

However, he was also attracted to the couple’s commitment to offer dogs not only to veterans, but first responders, another hero he and the LaFlammes said it was important to recognize as they are also susceptible to PTSD because of the injuries they witness each day.

Sandra LaFlamme receives a certificate recognizing the donation from Tom Evelyn.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Mark LaFlamme said the donation would help sustain the nonprofit.

“IslandWalk Veterans really stepped up to the plate,” he said. "Our biggest challenge by far is the fundraising. When we have the funds, we train dogs. When we don’t, we try to get the funds.”

The funds will primarily support the certification of Sandy, a golden retriever belonging to Mark Power, as a service dog.

Evelyn said providing the donation was a simple decision.

"Very few things will change somebody's life, but this will, so it was really easy for us.”

The golf tournament, which was held in Capri Isles in Venice on Feb. 18, attracted 138 golfers from Lakewood Ranch to Fort Myers, although only 80 had been expected, Evelyn said.

Mark LaFlamme said service dogs fill a crucial need for veterans, as the transition between combat and civilian life can be challenging for service members. Having joined the Air Force in 1985 and retired in 2006, LaFlamme participated in Operation Desert Storm as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“With the military, you can be fighting Friday, and back at the job Monday,” he said.

After his third deployment, he was faced with the suicides of two fellow members, which pushed him on to found the nonprofit in 2016.

He said veterans will be taken off duty if they have to seek treatment for PTSD.

“They take you away from your group, and that’s your life, your guys.”

Promotional materials designer Nadine Schippers, Sandra LaFlamme, Tom Evelyn, Mark LaFlamme, and dogs Cowgirl and Allie
Photo by Ian Swaby

Sandra LaFlamme said families, including spouses and children, are affected as veterans withdraw from the workforce and those around them. The LaFlammes said service dogs can aid in healing their mental and emotional scars by providing an unconditionally committed companion.

“It’s the bonding …” Mark LaFlamme said. “It’s almost a sense of security — that’s my dog, that’s my helper, that’s my buddy.”

Sandra LaFlamme said having experienced a traumatic brain injury as a child, she understands the benefit that animals, and engagement with a source of positivity and responsibility, can provide.

“Everything you do that brings positive things into your life, everything that you do that gets you reengaged, you're concentrating and focusing, and it's giving your brain a chance to heal around where that brain injury is.”

Mark LaFlamme said after calling Washington, D.C., about joining a service dog program with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the couple received no response. As a result, they decided to set out on their own, beginning in 2016 with their two Belgian shepherds, Allie and Cowgirl, who often assist them in demonstrations.

He said they are able to train dog for $8,500, in contrast to the VA’s cost of $25,000.

Mark LaFlamme said Belgian shepherds demonstrate an understanding of PTSD. One recipient, he said, found that his dog lay at his bedside, then the next time on his chest, the first time the dog saw him experience episodes. 

“That's near impossible to train. It's just a sense that the dog has: ‘Hey, my master is in distress, I need to help," LaFlamme said.

The provision of a new dog always starts with the recipients’ needs, Sandra LaFlamme said. Based on the input of the staff of Bradenton trainer Natasha Wilhelm, the couple will seek out dogs from sources that include breeders, which they examine for quality, and shelters such as Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue.

The dogs are bonded with the owners from the time they are puppies. If the LaFlammes find the dogs do not display aggressive temperaments or problematic habits, they are either sent to a puppy boot camp or, if they are older, to train with Wilhelm, before being returned to the veterans.

The training doesn’t end there. Sandra LaFlamme said mentors from Knights of Columbus San Damiano Assembly 3192 in Bradenton help ensure that recipients continue to expose the dogs to a series of different experiences in a checklist of items provided by Canines for Heroes.

These can be sights, sounds, environments, and surfaces. One opportunity for exposure will be found at the upcoming Annual IslandWalk Car Show, she said.

Sandra LaFlamme said this experience would be useful for the nonprofit in checking up on the recipients, something it does every six months.

“That’s the reason we like to do car shows and golf tournaments,” she said. “We are eyes on the dog — so if I see something going on to the left or the right, it gives me a chance to bring in extra training for that person and their family and keep that dog super sharp.”

She also said the car show would provide an opportunity for the recipients to be out and have fun, blending in with the crowd and socializing.

However, Evelyn said there is a unique kind of bond that only a human and a canine can share, which has a common effect on everyone.

“When everything else is wrong, the dog is always there, they're always your friend. And when life has gone crazy, it's just nice to come to somebody for whom nothing matters, but you. A dog is part of your life, but to the dog, you are his whole life.”



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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