Wyoming lawmakers' service dog becomes 'member' of Legislature

2014-03-10T08:00:00Z 2014-03-10T09:05:09Z Wyoming lawmakers' service dog becomes 'member' of LegislatureBy LAURA HANCOCK Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
March 10, 2014 8:00 am  • 

Like many at the Wyoming Capitol, LeRoy got sick during week three of the four-week budget session.

Blame it on the 12-hour days, the stress of being away from home, or not enough play time. He came down with an eye infection, followed by an ear infection. It took a toll on his energy. LeRoy needed eye and ear drops.

“By Monday morning, he was back to his normal self, tail wagging,” said his owner, Rep. Stephen Watt, R-Rock Springs.

LeRoy is an 80-pound liver brown bloodhound. He served in the 62nd Wyoming Legislature as a service dog to Watt, who suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

LeRoy, who will turn 3 in July, is believed to be the first service dog in the Legislature, although no one keeps historical records on such details. House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, gave Watt permission to have LeRoy in the House chamber and in committee meetings.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen it in my 10 years, other than the bomb dogs that come through every morning,” Lubnau said.

Watt was shot five times nearly 32 years ago while working as a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper. He got LeRoy almost a year ago.

“Rep. Watt is a true hero and has had some interesting and difficult burdens of life thrust upon him,” Lubnau said. “Anything we can do to make his life easier, I’m glad to do.”

‘He knows’

Watt initially adopted LeRoy from a bloodhound rescue to help with physical challenges from his injuries. LeRoy can wear a special harness to pull Watt’s wheelchair, which the lawmaker occasionally uses when the pain is especially excruciating. Watt is training LeRoy to use his paw to hit handicapped switches that automatically open doors. LeRoy is learning to fetch things off the floor, such as keys.

“I have a bullet in my spine, and it’s getting harder and harder for me to bend over and pick things up,” Watt said.

It wasn’t until later that Watt realized LeRoy was helping him psychologically, too.

One day, Watt was shopping at a grocery store. LeRoy, as usual, was on a leash, walking in tandem with Watt’s left knee. Suddenly, LeRoy stopped walking and turned around, Watt said.

Since LeRoy is strong, his force turned Watt around, too. Watt set them straight and continued walking. But the pooch turned them around again, he said.

“The fourth time he did that, I all of a sudden could picture in my brain a hand or something trying to flip that switch to have a flashback,” Watt said. “And I thought, ‘Holy cow, he knows.’ He distracts me by doing something, taking my mind off it. Since then, he’s made me more aware of when I’m going to have a flashback.”

David Allhusen is a licensed clinical social worker for the Veterans Affairs' Casper Outpatient Clinic who treats patients with PTSD. Dogs aren’t aware of what is going through a person’s mind, he said. But they are attuned to changes in their favorite person’s body, such as rapid breathing and muscle tension.

“It’s the behavior that is sensed by the animal,” Allhusen said. “You’re walking in the store and thinking about buying a pound of spaghetti. And all of a sudden you get lost. You space out. The behavior changes. You’re no longer purposely shopping. You’re starting to wander aimlessly. A dog will be alert to that.”

Watt said LeRoy will lick his face to wake him up when he has nightmares.

“If that doesn’t work, he’ll put his paw on my head,” he said. “As big as he is, once he puts his paw on your head, you wake up.”

The legislator's injuries stem from a March 1982 traffic stop. While on duty with the Highway Patrol, Watt pulled over Mark Farnham on Wyoming Highway 430. Earlier that day, Farnham had robbed a bank in Craig, Colo. Farnham shot Watt in the left eye, spine, liver and twice in the hip.

Since Watt began relying on LeRoy for anxiety and PTSD symptoms, he hasn’t had a full-blown flashback, he said.

“They’re terrible because I scream, ‘I’ve been shot!’ like I did over the radio,” he said. “I go through the whole shooting from start to finish. If there’s nothing that stops me, I go through the whole scenario like it was March 18, 1982.”

These days, Watt takes comfort in rubbing LeRoy’s ears. He doesn’t have medical data to prove it, but he is convinced his blood pressure and heart rate are lower.

“I don’t know how I lived 30 years without LeRoy,” he said.

No petting, with an exception

When LeRoy has his vest on, he’s working.

Watt forbids people from petting him because he will lose his focus on Watt and continue to seek attention from others, he said. The same goes for sniffing, a bloodhound’s specialty, and people food. Both are prohibited.

There is an exception to the no-petting rule. That exception is Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, whose desk is next to Watt’s. Watt wanted LeRoy to bond with Baker in case he had to leave LeRoy at the desk for a couple minutes. Baker and the dog became close, Watt said.

From floor debates on the state budget to votes on Medicaid expansion, LeRoy was well-behaved, never barking or stirring too much, Baker said.

If Watt walked to the microphone to address the body, LeRoy dutifully followed, with his leash dragging behind. LeRoy responded to Watt’s one-word commands, Baker said. Sometimes, Watt would run to the printer and leave LeRoy at the desk, shutting the end of the leash inside a desk drawer. LeRoy remained with Baker, head and ears popped up, waiting for Watt, Baker said.

“He became a member of the Legislature,” Baker said.

Baker and Watt even rearranged the way they filed information pertaining to bills so they wouldn’t have to continuously open their bottom desk drawers. LeRoy liked to chill at the base of their desks, Baker said.

At home in Rock Springs, LeRoy doesn’t wear a vest. He naps and gets petted like a regular dog. He plays with Watt’s other dog, a black lab. They roll around and playfully fight, Watt said.

“This session is the hardest and longest that I’ve ever had him work,” Watt said. “He puts in the same hours that I do, and then if we do an evening function he works, and then we’re to the room. It’s funny, out in the (hotel) hallway I’ll take his vest off and his leash off and he’ll tear back and forth three or four times.”

Watt is continuing to train LeRoy, which mostly involves Watt showing his dog what he wants him to do and repeating it. LeRoy is smart and learns quickly, Watt said.

“Maybe later on in his training, as he becomes more and more trained, I may let people shake his paw because he will shake,” Watt said. “He likes to shake. He loves people.”

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