News | June 26, 2015

Puppies in NSA's Halls Raised to be More than Best Friends

Three-year-old Coby, motionless other than a sniffling nose, sits up straight and looks at his handler. Seven-month-old Zeppelin, in contrast, is very "wiggly," as Pete Geoghan, a leader in the Research Directorate at NSA and a volunteer puppy-raiser, put it. Zeppelin is all energy and eagerness for treats. Both Coby and Zeppelin sit with their handlers in the lobby of NSA's headquarters.

Army Staff Sgt. (Ret.) John Barbare, a strategic planner, brings his service dog Coby to work at NSA's secure facilities every day.

"His job is to do stuff I can't do," Barbare said. Each morning, "we go our merry way up to the office."

Barbare has two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained while deployed in Afghanistan. Coby, a yellow lab and a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) service dog, knows 45 commands to help Barbare with tasks made difficult by his injuries.

"These dogs are changing lives," Geoghan said. "It's amazing to see how much help the dogs provide." Geoghan raises dogs like Coby for CCI, which provides people with disabilities highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support, at no cost.

After Coby was assigned to Barbare through CCI's Wounded Veteran Initiative, Barbare worked to enable Coby's presence at his workplace on NSA's secure campus through NSA's Disability Affairs Office.

"One of the many responsibilities the Disability Affairs Office helped me with was making sure Coby had proper access, so it was pleasant working with them," Barbare said. Geoghan remarked that turning in the application and paperwork was a quick, one-time process, and relatively easy. 

Disability Affairs facilitates bringing accredited service dogs into NSA buildings, but also allows service dog trainees to accompany employees to work. By law, workplaces must allow service dogs, but have the option to refuse to allow admittance to puppies who are not yet certified service dogs. Sharon Shoemaker, an NSA mathematician, helped pioneer opening up the Agency to this opportunity to give back, including working with Disability Affairs to develop the one-time process.

"We worked with the Office of Security, the Office of Policy, and especially the Disability Affairs Office," she said. "And we've followed this process ever since."

Shoemaker also raises puppies for CCI and serves as Geoghan's mentor. She has brought four service dog trainees into four different offices over the last ten years. Perhaps most famously, a yellow lab named Hans came to work with Shoemaker at the NSA/CSS Threat Operations Center (NTOC) in 2011, where he was so popular that a large painting of him, by an agency employee, still hangs in the NTOC front office.

Another one of Shoemaker's puppies, Candy, was brought into NTOC when current NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett was the chief.

"Having Candy in the workplace was a great benefit, to her as she learned how to behave around different people, and to our employees who enjoyed her presence," Ledgett said. "Sometimes at the end of a tough day, when most of the people were gone, I would throw an empty plastic soda bottle down the hallway for her to retrieve—we both felt better afterwards!"

When an article and photos of Hans appeared on the internal agency news webpage, "the program really took off, and people heard about the Agency process to bring in service dogs-in-training," Shoemaker said. "It's a great program. It's supporting the community, it's supporting the workforce, and the dogs don't cause any trouble."

Service dogs like Coby undergo extensive medical and behavioral evaluations, on top of more than two years of training before they're assigned to a client. Coby also has to pass the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) public access test annually to demonstrate that he is always fully under Barbare's control despite distractions like food, other dogs, and loud noises. Coby has passed every year—"knock on wood," Barbare said.

NTOC's former pup, Hans, is now part of a program that helps wounded veterans with adaptive sports, and Shoemaker has another puppy at home she's preparing to bring into Agency spaces in September. Shoemaker, Geoghan, and others who raise puppies for service dog organizations like CCI strive to be good stewards of the responsibility of bringing pups-in-training to NSA workspaces, Geoghan said.

"The dogs don't take away from work," Shoemaker said. "The operational pulse of the work environment at NSA benefits the dog, and the work environment benefits from having the dog there. It's a win for the dog. It's a win for the people who will get the service dog. It's a win for the employees."

The National Institutes of Health affirm that a dog's presence reduces blood pressure in humans, boosting both health and morale.

"Morale definitely goes up when the dog is here," Geoghan said of the canine trainees he's brought to work. "He's a calming influence."

Because service dogs raised by NSA employees often go on to help wounded veterans, Shoemaker said, using NSA spaces to help train the dogs is one way that NSA can give back to those who have given so much.

"As much as I grow to love them, I didn't get these puppies to be pets. I'm raising them for someone who really needs an assistance dog," Geoghan said. "And I feel very blessed to work at a place that helps me do that."

NSA's goal is to be a model employer for individuals with disabilities, and to provide a work environment that allows all employees, including those with disabilities, to have long and productive careers. NSA's Office of Disability Affairs works with applicants, employees, and visitors to provide a variety of reasonable accommodations and disability services in the workplace to ensure access.