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New friendship a heartwarming story of survival

By: John Barlow

  |  Posted: Thursday, Dec 12, 2013 10:33 am

Don Leonardo, a veteran of the war in the former Yugoslavia, plays with his new service dog Diesel outside trainer Donna Luchak’s Okotoks home. Diesel was a rescue dog from the High River flood.
Don Leonardo, a veteran of the war in the former Yugoslavia, plays with his new service dog Diesel outside trainer Donna Luchak’s Okotoks home. Diesel was a rescue dog from the High River flood.
JORDAN VERLAGE/Okotoks Western Wheel

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He struggles to kneel down to play with his new friend, but when the small puppy wanders over, he smiles because he knows they belong together and their stories of survival are their bond.

On Nov. 30 Don Leonardo, a veteran of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, met his new service dog Diesel in Okotoks.

The duo share a common bond as Diesel was rescued from the High River flood and is now being trained to rescue Leonardo from debilitating night terrors and other symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Leonardo lives in Airdrie and is president of Veterans of Canada, a group he formed to lobby for veteran’s affairs.

He travelled to Okotoks on Saturday to meet Diesel who is being trained to be a service dog by Donna Luchak of Citadel Canine Society.

The Canadian war veteran said he realizes he and Diesel share a special connection.

“Diesel is a rescue dog from the High River flood and they rescued him so he could rescue me,” said Leonardo with a smile.

Leonardo served in Yugoslavia more than 20 years ago, but since he returned from the war he has suffered PTSD and night terrors. He said he does not know what triggers the terrors, but the impact it has had on his life is apparent.

Leonardo rarely gets a good night sleep and the stress and side effects of his medication has caused him to gain a lot of weight. To add to his ailments he has been diagnosed with diabetes.

Leonardo is looking at Diesel as his lifeline.

“He is going to be a lifesaver,” said Leonardo.

“He will be a companion, he will force me to get out of the house and get active.”

Diesel is being trained to sense when Leonardo is having a panic attack, night terrors or losing his temper.

When Leonardo is in distress Diesel will simply wander over and give him a nudge. A simple nudge will reassure him he is not alone, and to put his stress aside and pay attention to his furry friend.

A delicate touch with a cold wet nose could make all the difference for a struggling war veteran.

As he watches Diesel play with his trainer Leonardo cannot help but smile.

“I am excited and nervous. There is a real range of emotions,” he said. “I now see a light at the end of the tunnel. This is imperative to my quality of life.”

Not only is Diesel giving Leonardo a second chance, the same argument can be made the other way.

After the June flood the High River animal sanctuary Heaven Can Wait rescued Diesel. Although Diesel’s owner was located, their home was damaged and they did not have space for the beautiful miniature husky.

As a result, Diesel was left at Heaven Can Wait.

According to Heaven Can Wait owner Kim Hessel, it was not an uncommon occurrence after the disaster.

“Some people asked us to keep their animals for safe keeping and for other owners there was too much going on and they had to give up their animals,” she said. “Under the circumstances it was the right thing to do.”

Heaven Can Wait was home to dozens of homeless animals and the possibility they would all be adopted seemed remote.

However, Diesel’s fate changed when Sharon Van Olm was looking for dogs for Citadel Canine Service to be trained as service dogs for veterans.

Van Olm, who lives in High River, has been instrumental in organizing several fundraisers in the foothills to benefit programs aimed at helping Canada’s military veterans.

The most recent was a concert with Jason McCoy in Okotoks and the beneficiary this year was Citadel Canine Services.

With one son in the military and another recently discharged Van Olm knows the risks associated with PTSD.

“People don’t understand a soldier looks fine on the outside and they may question why they need a service dog,” she explained. “But when they come home from war, the war is still in their head.”

During the planning of the McCoy concert, Van Olm learned Citadel was searching for a dog for a veteran in Airdrie and she approached Hessel to see if she had any candidates.

When she met with Hessel, they found Diesel. The composed husky fit exactly what Citadel was looking for.

“The dog has to be approachable, but it also has to be brave,” said Van Olm. “It has to be able to know when the soldier is getting antsy so it can tell him ‘pay attention to me and get rid of whatever is in your head.’”

According to his trainer Diesel is doing extremely well.

He is undergoing service dog training for three months before he will be given to Leonardo and then there will be regular follow-ups to ensure the husky remains confident and obedient.

For Leonardo he knows he and Diesel will be a perfect team. Diesel was a flood refugee rescued from Heaven Can Wait and he a veteran in need of being rescued — they are a match made in heaven.

For more information on Citadel Canine Services see


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