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WHEATFIELD – Sergio Cardenas of Lewiston, a U.S. Army veteran who became disabled in 2008 after serving in Iraq, rolled on the floor of the Niagara County SPCA with a pit bull named Zera.

“A lot of us veterans have a lot of issues. Dogs are a way that we are able to connect with the environment around us. It helps us socially,” said Cardenas.

Appropriately on Veterans Day, the Niagara County SPCA, in coalition with veterans groups and Niagara University, launched Dog Tags Niagara, a program that asks veterans coming back from deployment to serve their community as shelter volunteers. The program aims to offer a bit of free pet therapy that benefits both the animals at the shelter as well as returning soldiers.

“Their volunteering efforts at the shelter are actually therapeutic for them,” said Niagara County SPCA Director Amy Lewis.

Frank Coseglia, a staff sergeant with the 914th Airlift Wing who has worked in the clinic at the nearby Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station for the past 10 years, has also been an SPCA volunteer for the last two years. He started the program after he saw the needs of both veterans coming back from deployment and the animals at the SPCA.

“I work in the medical clinic, so a lot of the times when you come back you see and hear about the situations they have been through,” Coseglia said. “Vets are able to cope more with dogs than they are with people, and it helps the healing.”

Coseglia said vets with post traumatic stress disorder have trouble looking people in the eye and have trouble with communication, but their whole outlook changes once a dog is brought into the room.

“Once they start petting that dog – that’s literally all it takes,” Coseglia said.

Joe Ruszala, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam and was the co-founder of the Erie County SPCA’s Veteran Program, “Paws and Patriots,” compared veterans to pit bulls. “Like the dog, veterans are stigmatized and sometimes have a bad rap. They come back from deployment with difficulty integrating back into society and often get themselves into trouble. The dog on the Dog Tags Niagara logo is a pit bull and symbolizes this similarity.”

Local veteran Frank Morabito, of Lockport, believes in the ability of animals to heal humans and tells the story of adopting a pit bull named Victor, which he renamed Otto.

Morabito joined the U.S. Army in 2006 and entered the 82nd Airborne Division in 2007, where he was in the aerial recovery team in Afghanistan. He left active duty in March 2012 and five months later visited the Niagara County SPCA, where he chose Otto.

“A dog can connect with you on a different level,” said Morabito. “He’s helped me through a lot.”

He said Otto has become a certified therapy dog,.

“People asked me what I did and say, ‘Oh my God that’s pretty intense’ and when they see a pit bull they say, ‘Oh my God, a pit bull,’ the attitudes are the same, but when they get to know him they get excited that it’s a really great dog,” Morabito said.

Representatives from Dog Tags Niagara were at the Niagara County SPCA on Lockport Road from noon to 8 p.m. Monday and will return from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday to recruit new volunteers. Veterans interested in joining can leave a message for the shelter at 731-4368.

email:nfischer@buffnews.com