Heinz History Center program in Pittsburgh highlights tales about good dogs

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First Sgt. Brian Coutch occasionally has nightmares and flashbacks. A 22-year veteran of the Army, Sgt. Coutch, who lives in New Kensington, served as an engineer specializing in improvised explosive devices in a career that included four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. His return home was not easy. Due to physical injuries, he struggled with his ability to balance and pick things up. He also found himself coping with anxiety and high blood pressure.

"I didn't even go out of my house. If I did go shopping, it was at 2 or 3 in the morning," he said.

Then he met Slate.

Dog Jack of the Civil War

Dog Jack of the Civil War inspires a Heinz History Center event showcasing the role of dogs in our lives (Video by Bob Donaldson 8/4/2013)

Slate, a Labrador, is a service dog, therapy dog and barrier dog with Susquehanna Service Dogs. For almost two years, he has helped Sgt. Coutch overcome the difficulties induced by his war experiences, whether comforting him while he watches fireworks or helping him with routine physical tasks.

On Sunday, both Sgt. Coutch and Slate were at the Heinz History Center for the Hero Dogs of Western Pennsylvania event, which highlighted local organizations that work with service dogs, therapy dogs and working dogs.

The event, which coincided with the start of International Assistance Dog Week, featured talks and demonstrations in collaboration with "Pennsylvania's Civil War," an exhibit that runs until Jan. 5, 2014.

Pups were in attendance, too. From chocolate Labs to German shepherds, these canines serve as rescue and search dogs, arson dogs and service dogs. Service dogs are always welcome at the museum, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The event focused on "how service dogs have evolved from the Civil War to today," said Sarah Rooney, community programs manager.

But the history precedes that war, too, and Sgt. Coutch is part of a long tradition of soldiers teaming up with canines. Since ancient times, pups have played an important tactical role in armies, in Egypt, Greece, Persia and Rome. In the U.S., however, dogs were mostly strays or rescued dogs that units adopted to serve as companions to soldiers, according to Leslie Przybylek, curator of history.

The average age of soldiers was 24 or 25, she said, and many were away from home for the first time.

"Dogs allowed men to carry a bit of home with them to the war," she said in a presentation.

"Almost every regiment had some sort of a mascot," she said, noting that many artillery units used horses and one Confederate unit even had a camel.

And while pups were "not brought for tactical reasons," many ended up providing that sort of support, too.

Pennsylvania's most famous canine warriors were Dog Sallie and Dog Jack, who were the mascots of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment of Westmoreland County and the 102nd Pennsylvania Regiment of Pittsburgh, respectively. Both animals are believed to have been part pit bull.

Though she was brought only as a companion, Sallie ended up learning the bugle calls and drums, following soldiers into battle, and leading marches. Her unit was involved in early fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1, 1863. She stayed with dead and injured soldiers for three days. Now, there is a statue of Sallie at the battlefield.

Jack, who as a former Pittsburgher is featured in the history center's exhibit, made his way into the Niagara Fire Company in what is now the Strip District in 1860. He later joined several firemen from that station into the war, serving as an important part of its warning system. Jack was captured twice during the war and was even part of a prisoner exchange, along with 94 soldiers from his unit, which fought in the battles of Antietam, Fair Oaks, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. In December 1864, Jack disappeared, likely killed for the silver collar his unit had given him.

Given the difficulty in piecing together the stories of hero dogs, "we're fortunate that a dog that's a true Pittsburgh story was passed down to us," Ms. Przybylek said.

And the stories continue until today. Before Slate, Sgt. Coutch had worked with military bomb dogs in Afghanistan. Those canines identified hidden mines, which soldiers would then disarm.

"It was easier for them to find a mine than it was for us," he said.

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Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG. First Published August 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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