CHARLOTTE — Fleet, a rambunctious 15-week-old golden retriever, always seems to be carrying something in his mouth.
His trainer, Andy Bunn, says that’s actually a good sign.
Golden retrievers are an easy-going, anxious-to-please breed anyway and Fleet’s love for carrying things will serve him — and Josh Craven — well.
Since losing his left leg as a soldier in Iraq and going through six surgeries toward saving his right leg, Craven has been recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
When he returns home to Asheboro, Craven will appreciate the help and companionship of Fleet, who in four months will be a full-fledged service dog able to do things such as fetch his master’s keys, open doors, turn on the lights or bring food from the refrigerator.
But Fleet — part of the new Carolina Patriot Rovers program — holds special meaning to another family. He is named after James Fleet McClamrock, a soldier from Concord who was killed in Iraq last September.
McClamrock’s mother, Susan, heard of the Carolina Patriot Rovers program aimed at training and certifying veteran service dogs, and she “double-dared” the Purina company to support its mission.
Purina Dog Chow selected McClamrock as one of three grand-prize winners in its national “Double Dog Dare” contest and awarded the young Patriot Rovers program a check Tuesday for $25,000.
“He is absolutely a special animal,” McClamrock said while holding Fleet Tuesday at the Star Dog Club, where he is being trained. “One of the things in losing a child is you never want them to be forgotten.”
Every time Craven says Fleet’s name in the future — and you say a dog’s name many times a day — her son will be remembered.
Susan McClamrock, her husband, Mark, and their daughter-in-law and James’ widow, Shannah, spoke with Josh and Holly Craven Tuesday through the magic of a laptop computer using a Skype video feed.
The couple watched the proceedings from Walter Reed hospital.
“It means so much just to tell him thanks for your service to the country,” Susan said.
Shannah McClamrock, 23, was able to leave her downtown Charlotte job with Wells Fargo for a brief time Tuesday to attend the Purina check presentation. She called the Patriot Rovers program “awesome.”
“I really hope he (Fleet) helps him,” Shannah said.
David Cantara’s Patriot Rovers initiative started in August, and it has slowly been training rescued golden retrievers as both therapy dogs, for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, and service dogs, for veterans wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The rescued golden retrievers usually are named for fallen soldiers or military groups such as infantries.
On hand for the Purina happening Tuesday were Ryan, named for Christopher Ryan Barton, who was killed May 24, 2010, in Afghanistan; Noah, named for Noah M. Pier, a Marine killed Feb. 16, 2010, in Afghanistan; Wyatt, named for Christopher Wyatt McCullough, an Iraqi veteran who died in October, and is buried at the Salisbury National Cemetery; Ivy, named for the 4th Infantry Division; and Deuce, named for the 22nd Infantry.
“It’s about saving dogs and helping soldiers,” Cantera said, describing “Rovers” as a healing mission.
John Leavelle, who did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, benefited from the Patriot Rovers’ first graduate — a retriever named Daisy. Leavelle said Tuesday he can’t envision his life now without Daisy. He received her from the program last November.
“She’s my buddy,” he said.
Elaine Schmiedeshoff, mother of Christopher Ryan Barton, attended the Purina festivities Tuesday and enjoyed meeting Ryan, the 13-month-old retriever Bunn is training as a service dog.
Close to being certified, Ryan was rescued from a situation where his previous owner had been keeping him tied up in a 10-by-10-foot pen. “He’s a lucky dog,” Bunn said of Ryan’s getting a second chance.
As for Fleet, “he has some work to do,” Bunn acknowledged. “They (retrievers) need to be nurtured.”
Bunn tries to get the dogs accustomed to hospital environments and negotiating things such as automatic doors and elevators or being around wheelchairs and ventilators. They learn, of course, basic commands such as heel, sit and come, and they go through agility tests so they are accomplished at dealing with obstacles.
They also learn not to jump on people or “lick too much,” Bunn said.
Dogs are incredible animals whose mere presence can help reduce its owner’s blood pressure or even bring them out of depression. Bunn said golden retrievers in particular are natural work dogs and “followers,” bred for companionship.
They are easily trained through repetition and learn faster than many other dogs. Even though Cantara’s program is in its infancy, “Right now, I’m getting a lot of good feelings out of it,” Bunn said.
A veteran and Patriot Guard Rider, Cantara described retrievers as the hippies of the dog world — a peace, love and recycle breed. They have a calming influence on soldiers battling PTSD, he said, and just having a dog forces a veteran to be more social and interactive.
Dogs are good icebreakers.
Purina also awarded Susan McClamrock $5,000 for her winning “Double Dog Dare” entry and a year’s worth of Purina Dog Chow for her family’s cocker spaniel, Lady. Carolina Patriot Rovers will receive a two-year’s supply of food for one dog.
In addition, Purina is treating the McClamrock family to a concert later this year by The Band Perry.
Before submitting her entry to Purina, Susan McClamrock said she had learned that training each veteran service dog costs about $3,000. They are presented at no cost to the veterans selected to receive one, so the non-profit effort needs private support.
McClamrock said her own father was a veteran who was hospitalized with PTSD. “That’s why we’re so excited about this program,” she said. “I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Even more meaningful for the McClamrocks is that whenever Fleet’s name is called out, it’s a tribute to James floating toward heaven.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.