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The Dude with a Dog

Sam Wettstein with his dog

by Krista DeAngelis

It’s a rare occasion to see Sam Wettstein on campus without a canine friend. Whether he’s walking his Labrador retriever, Belle, across the Richer Commons or commanding his Belgian Malinois, Pearl, to sit still in Bamberger, Sam is pretty much known for being the “dude” with a service dog in tow.

A former military working-dog handler for the US Marine Corps, Sam has been around dogs for most of his life. In 2013, he deployed with Belle to Afghanistan with the special mission of detecting and identifying explosive devices throughout the area. After working side-by-side for nearly seven months, the pair became almost inseparable. When the time came for Sam to redeploy back home without Belle, it was a heartbreaking occasion.

“I was missing a part of me,” Sam says. “Having that kind of relationship with a dog, you get this bond.”

Upon returning to the states, Sam wrote dozens of emails to organizations to help him get Belle back. After almost a year, a nonprofit company called Mission K9 Rescue literally came to the rescue. The company flew Belle back home to Sam, and the two were reunited at the San Diego airport.

The experience with K9 Mission Rescue helped Sam, who is an environmental studies major and a Navy ROTC student at Westminster, realize his calling: helping fellow veterans and training dogs. Through his ROTC program, he was introduced to a local nonprofit organization called Labs for Liberty and began working for them.

“The mission of Labs for Liberty is to liberate American warriors by providing service dogs to help address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to attend to physical needs, and to restore the warrior’s family unit by providing opportunities to relax, reconnect, and rejuvenate,” Sam says.

Sam is now a specialized task trainer for Labs for Liberty, which trains Labrador retrievers (and a handful of other breeds) to assist veterans in a variety of tasks.

“I’m currently working with Pearl, a Belgian malinois. She is being trained to recognize a variety of social cues associated with PTSD, anxiety, and flashbacks,” he says.

Sam is also responsible for bringing the Labs for Liberty program to the Westminster campus.

“We have partnered with the University of Utah, Westminster, and Salt Lake Community College to pair students with service dogs to conduct their initial obedience training,” he says.

Sam hopes to help as many veterans as he can through the program. “I find it’s much easier to go about my day-to-day business with a service dog,” he says. “I love having them around, I love training them, and I love that this program brings me closer together with veterans in the community.”

Favorite type of dog: Labrador retriever

Number of Labs for Liberty dogs he’s trained: 10

Fun fact: Belle, Sam’s military working dog in Afghanistan, was awarded the 2016 Military Pet of the Year.

Rules for service dogs: Respect their space; refrain from petting/teasing the dog; don’t try to bring your dog to meet or socialize with a service dog; if you would like to pet the service dog, politely ask the trainer for permission to pet the dog and wait for instructions.

Fun facts about Labs: Labs were originally used for fishing; they are “America’s favorite breed”; Labs are the most commonly used breed for guide dogs; and in 1938, a Lab was the first dog to appear on the cover of Life magazine.



About the Westminster Review

The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.