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Middletown dog trainer is transforming veteran lives, one paw at a time

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa
/
Connecticut Public
Glenn Rodriguez, a dog trainer at Forever in My Heart Foundation in Middletown, is training service dogs at the CT Department of Veterans Affairs to assist veterans and children with autism.

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A Middletown man has been giving back to veterans and people living with autism.

Glenn Rodriguez, a New York native with Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage, began his dog training career in 2011. He moved to Connecticut three years ago and joined the Forever in My Heart Foundation, where he became a certified dog trainer.

“I've always been an animal lover. I've always loved dogs,” Rodriguez said. “I grew up around dogs. It made perfect sense to me, not only training dogs, but it's definitely very gratifying to be able to enhance someone's quality of life.”

Inspired by this human-canine bond Rodriguez trained countless service dogs, enabling veterans to regain independence and reduce their reliance on medication.

“Having a dog enables them and empowers them to regain their lives by going out in public. Because once the dog is placed, it's their dog. But some of those veterans were so loving of their fellow patriots that they were like, ‘I know this dog can go on to help someone else.’”

Rodriguez’s training method relies on positive reinforcement and patience. "We teach one piece at a time and then string commands together," he explained.

Rodriguez has also played a crucial role in rescuing and training dogs from war-torn Ukraine, providing these dogs with a new purpose.

“Because of the conflict in Ukraine, they went into neighboring Poland, and the president and founder of our foundation here is of Polish descent," Rodriguez said. "And so the opportunity presented itself for us to fly out to Poland. We have a number of dogs who we were able to get."

Despite language differences, these dogs quickly adapted to new commands through consistent training and rewards.

"Food is a universal language for dogs," Rodriguez added. “They are willing to do everything you are saying in whatever language as long as they understand the expectation.”

Mira Alicki, founder and president of Forever in My Heart Foundation, started by rescuing and training dogs for veterans. Now, the organization also trains dogs for children living with autism and as emotional support dogs for law enforcement.

“I always had a weakness for dogs, I love dogs. It was just kind of in my nature,” Alicki said. The organization had trained about 15 dogs before COVID-19, and it’s taken some time to rebuild that capacity, she said.

Despite its success, the foundation faces financial challenges. Training a service dog costs approximately $25,000, and the organization relies entirely on private donations and fundraising.

Community support is crucial to their work, Alicki said. They’ve organized creative fundraising efforts, such as “Pierogies for Paws,” to sustain their operations.

For Rodriguez, the journey is as rewarding as it is challenging. He hopes people recognize the profound impact trained service dogs can have on veterans and others in need.

"Life is about second chances," Rodriguez said. "No human or animal is disposable. Everyone deserves a second chance."

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.