Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pet with a purpose

Rescued from a life on the streets in Mexico, Lobo is being trained to help soldiers with PTSD

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It was a sizzling day in Mexico when Winnipeg Blue Bomber Chris Cvetkovic first laid eyes on Lobo.

For both of them, it was love at first sight.

This was January and the long snapper had dragged a group of Canadian Football League buddies south of the border to spend a week working at a volunteer spay-and-neuter clinic.

It came about because Cvetkovic -- a father of two and, at 36, the oldest player on the Bombers -- has a lifelong love affair with animals. Last year he founded Cvet's Pets, a non-profit group dedicated to raising cash and awareness for Manitoba's animal rescue programs.

Over five days in Mexico, the volunteer clinic spayed and neutered 1,327 dogs and cats, and the football players did everything but surgery -- pulling starving animals off the streets, cleaning their wounds, inserting breathing tubes and administering anesthetic.

One sweltering day, they visited a shelter, Isla Animal Rescue, and there, in a kennel with four or five other street dogs, was Lobo, an emaciated boxer-terrier cross puppy.

"He was just ribs and hip bones," the 6-1, 235-pound Cvetkovic, in his 12th CFL season and 10th with the Blue and Gold, recalled over lunch last week. "There wasn't much to him, but he was full of life. Right away, he wanted me to pick him up. He picked me; I didn't pick him. He jumped up and started licking me and wouldn't stop. Of course, I was all salty and sweaty."

The easygoing special teams expert knew there was no way he was leaving the shelter, or Mexico, without Lobo. The plan was to make him another member of the family, joining Cvetkovic's two children -- son Hudson, 5, and daughter Payton, 6 -- and their two other rescue dogs, Cody and Jersey.

Back in Winnipeg, the Mexican street dog was quickly surrounded by warm hearts and a cold climate. "He had never seen snow," the single dad says with a chuckle. "It was fine for a second, but after that he didn't want to go outside."

The story took a dramatic twist at a Super Bowl party in February when Cvetkovic first heard about Courageous Companions, a made-in-Manitoba project that provides specially trained service dogs free to veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The program was started eight years ago by MSAR, a volunteer organization whose members conduct search-and-rescue operations on Manitoba First Nations and train service dogs for almost every duty imaginable. The dogs -- trained to help people with everything from autism and dementia to serious depression -- are rescued from shelters and given to veterans at no cost.

In March, Cvetkovic met with Capt. George Leonard, search commander and master trainer with MSAR, who launched Courageous Companions in 2005 after meeting a Manitoba veteran crippled by PTSD.

"I wanted to work with him," Cvetkovic said. "I originally wanted to train Lobo with George just to better understand what goes into training a service dog to help someone with PTSD."

With Leonard's guidance, he started training his canine protégé, and Cvet's Pets began raising cash and awareness for Courageous Companions, which has placed about 85 service dogs with veterans.

The dogs, according to Leonard and Cvetkovic, can literally mean the difference between life and death, sensing when a traumatized veteran is in the grips of anxiety and pulling them back from a world of darkness. "These dogs literally are saving lives and stopping guys from committing suicide and helping veterans get their lives back together," Cvetkovic says.

It didn't take long to make a tough decision -- he'd train Lobo and donate him to help the cause. "He could be a lifelong pet for me or he could go on and save the life of a veteran," he says. "I loved him, but someone else needed him."

As we talk, Lobo lies quietly under the restaurant table in a bright orange vest sporting the warning: "Service dog in training. Do not pet!"

To date, his training has consisted largely of accompanying Cvetkovic to crowded public places. "Once the vest is on, it's time to work," he says. "You take them to malls because it's overstimulation -- different kinds of flooring, music blaring, little kids screaming, food smells. It's sensory overload for the dog. You want them to be 100 per cent focused on you."

At the end of this month, Lobo will be handed over to MSAR for more training and to be paired with a veteran, someone the Cvetkovic family will likely never meet. "Once Lobo's with a soldier, he'll be with him 24 hours a day," the CFL veteran says.

Happy now to be known more for his love of animals than his time on the gridiron, Cvetkovic plans to continue rescuing dogs and training them for Courageous Companions, even though the final step can be heartbreaking.

"The hardest part was telling my kids," he says softly. "They can't comprehend PTSD, but they can understand that someone is extremely sad and Lobo can make them extremely happy.

"My daughter Payton asked me what happened to all the love we gave him. I just said: 'That goes with him.'"

In a quiet moment, as Lobo licked burger grease off a columnist's hand, Cvetkovic turns to his five-year-old son and asks: "What's Lobo going to be?"

Chirps Hudson: "He's going to be a superhero!"

Which brings a smile to the face of a tough guy who loves helping others. "That's the only way I can think to tell the kids why we're giving him away," he says. "I love him, but if he can save someone's life, that's amazing.

"He's going from being neglected on the streets of Mexico to being a guardian angel."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2013 C5


Updated on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 6:51 AM CDT: Adds video

11:00 AM: Adds link, fixes bad character.

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