Niagara Gazette

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July 2, 2014

DELUCA: 'Bad' dogs help vets

Niagara Gazette — Bubba was a giant, grey-and-white, spotted pit bull that nobody at the shelter held out much hope for.

He was big, strong and tough to handle, probably abused. He was facing a life forever enclosed in a small cage until a group of local veterans changed his life.

And in his own way, Bubba may have changed theirs.

“I approached him just like I would a junior Marine,” said Josh Hays, a Marine corporal reservist from Lewiston who described the dog’s transformation to me. “I would take him for a nice long run and tire him out and then he’d be ready to learn.”

Hays, president of the veteran student group at the University at Buffalo, is a member of Dog Tags Niagara.  He found out about the program last year when the three co-founders, including Suzy Alexander of Tonawanda, Toni Derrick of Pendleton and Joe Ruszala of Hamburg, came to meet with his student group. As a marine and an animal lover, Hays immediately understood the value of the program and starting spending time at the SPCA with other veterans, working with many of the hard-to-place dogs, typically the pit bulls.

Bubba, now adopted, is one of the success stories of the Dog Tags program. The program was created in response to the horrifying news that U.S. troops commit suicide at a rate of 22 per day. The founders of Dog Tags Niagara believe those numbers are an outrage, and so should we. 

I first heard about Dog Tags Tuesday from Dennis Brochey, supervisor of the Town of Lewiston, who was meeting with the group to present them with a check for $4,400, part of the funds he raises for military support programs every year at his annual bench press contest.

Brochey had met Ruszala, a Vietnam vet and one of the founders of Dog Tags, at his February competition at the Connecticut Street Armory. When Brochey heard the statistics on veteran suicides, he was appalled.  But, there was something Brochey could do to help. 

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