AFMC Command News

AFLCMC security specialist transforms love for animals into volunteer service to support her community

  • Published
  • By Allyson B. Crawford, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Public Affairs

For AFLCMC Security Specialist Gabriela Lesko, having a shadow at work is totally normal, but she isn’t training an intern. Her shadow has four paws and answers to the name Chole. That’s because in addition to her paid work as an Air Force civilian at Wright-Patterson AFB, Lesko is also a primary dog handler for the non-profit organization 4 Paws for Ability.  

When she is in the office, Chole works right alongside Lesko at AFLCMC headquarters. In fact, Chole’s human coworkers are used to seeing her around base. Lesko says, “Having Chole nearby opens a better understanding of service dogs and their importance for individuals with special needs or invisible disabilities.”

4 Paws for Ability is a Xenia, Ohio based organization that started in 1998. The nonprofit trains service dogs for those who need help with various health conditions, including facilitated guide dog or hearing issues, individuals battling diabetes or seizures, veterans with PTSD and many more conditions. The dogs help individuals achieve and maintain their independence.

Primary dog handlers like Lesko are volunteers that live and work with the dogs 24/7 before the canines eventually graduate to an advanced training level. Training with primary handlers starts when the dogs are around 12 weeks old.

“I love animals more than anything, and I was always the person in college and even now that would babysit everyone [else’s] dogs and help train their dogs basic obedience roles,” explains Lesko of her interest in working with the program.

Lesko learned of 4 Paws for Ability through a contact at her gym. At first, she volunteered with 4 Paws as a secondary handler, which means babysitting the dogs in the program. After taking special training courses, she graduated to the primary handler level.

The Training Timeline:

Primary handlers like Lesko typically care for a dog for about a year or so. Around the one-year-old mark, the dog gets evaluated to see if they will move on to advanced training, and that is where the specific service roles are determined. Advanced training takes anywhere between 3-6 months, on a case-by-case basis. When training is done, Lesko and other volunteers have to say goodbye to their shadows. At this point, the dogs are placed with their permanent owners.

While Lesko is dreading the day she has to give-up Chole, but she knows it will be for a good cause.

“I love Chole with my whole heart, but I know that some family is going to rely on her for so much more than I would be able to help with. Just knowing that I am putting in the work and time so another family can welcome this dog into their home -- and have them be able to help in a way I would never be able too -- It's what I lean on… when thinking about having to give Chloe back,” explains Lesko.

Impact on Mental Health:

While Lesko primarily focuses on basic obedience and socialization, 4 Paws for Ability does support individuals with a range of disabilities, including those who require emotional support due to conditions like PTSD. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and it is important to note that the organization's dogs can provide a significant boost to mental health, offering companionship and emotional assistance. Veteran’s Assistance Dogs are trained to help those disabled veterans of the Global War on Terror. Dogs help with mobility problems or hearing loss due to combat injuries.

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