In one D.C. TV station, a service dog helps bring disability stories into focus

In an extraordinary five-minute segment that aired in November, three female service members described to WUSA9-TV special assignment reporter Andrea McCarren the continuing fallout from being raped while serving their country.

“I wasn’t like this before. I had a nervous breakdown,” a Navy veteran named Rachael said through tears.

Rachael had agreed to the segment only after establishing trust with McCarren through an hour-long walk on the waterfront with her and Nigel, the service dog McCarren has been training from puppyhood. The growing Labrador is the second service dog raised at the Washington, D.C., CBS affiliate — and, McCarren believes, they’re the only two ever trained in and by a local television newsroom.

Nigel and his predecessor, Bunce, have changed McCarren’s life both personally and professionally: “They’ve opened my eyes ... these dogs have made me a better reporter.”

It takes a village to raise a puppy, and WUSA9 is all in. Nigel has a toy-filled corral behind McCarren’s desk. Anchors and staff make a fuss over him. “We love the dogs!” says director of research Erin Staples. “Seeing them is the best part of our day.”

Until early 2015, Channel 9 was a standard newsroom — and McCarren’s was a standard, if distinguished, broadcast career. Never mind those shelves of awards in her Maryland home — she’s anchored and reported regionally and nationally, winning three Edward R. Murrow Awards, 21 regional Emmys, and Kiplinger and Nieman fellowships — after a quarter century of scoops, scandals and scripts, the news had become routine.

The multimedia reporter conferred with her husband, Bill. Her family of origin was military, and from age 10, she had raised dogs and shown them around North America. Maybe she, their family, and the newsroom could raise a puppy to be a service dog for a veteran in need.

McCarren took the idea to then-president/general manager Mark Burdette and then-station manager/executive news director Bill Lord. Both, she says, agreed enthusiastically.

Soon an English Labrador pup arrived on behalf of Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit that links trained dogs to wounded service members. Bunce was named for Marine Cpl. Justin Bunce, injured by an IED in Iraq in 2004.

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Justin Bunce poses with Andrea McCarren, his namesake service dog and Dan Berschinski, who was matched with Bunce.

Work-life balance with puppy

Naturally, fans inside and out found the newcomer adorable. But training a future service dog is serious business. Beyond housebreaking, there are dozens of commands to teach and reinforce. Bunce learned to pee on command, wait patiently for food, ignore such temptations as squirrels, and press buttons with a paw or nose.

Slowly, Bunce began to return the favor by influencing McCarren’s career — and the arc of her life.

A small puppy needs feeding three times a day on a schedule. What viewers would see: McCarren being introduced, then smiling at the camera. Or gesturing with one hand and reading her lines solemnly. What viewers wouldn’t see: In the missing few seconds, McCarren ducking off-camera to place a food bowl. Or feeding the puppy Cheerios with the hidden hand, trying not to grin as he licked her fingers.

Canine socialization is the central tenet of training, so where McCarren went, Bunce went: to the Pentagon, parades, protests, even the Emmys. (Shedded fur goes well with a rented dress, she once said.) Following service dog tradition, McCarren made business cards with the station logo and Bunce’s photo — in his little camo vest — on one side and facts about the training program and her contact information on the other. She gave out up to 1,000 a month.

“The great thing about raising a service dog in a newsroom,” she says, “is that it’s exposed to all ages, all races, lights, flyovers, drums, smells, tears, bad weather, burkas, joy, crowds, vehicles, wild applause … all things it needs to learn about.” At the same time, colleagues and the public were learning the hows and whys of service dogs.

Using wheelchair ramps, disability doors, and elevators is part of the training. What this showed McCarren is that accommodations don’t always work. Observations, frustrations and research led to a weeklong series called “No Barriers” — on obstacles for people with visual, auditory, or mobility problems — which led to fixes in the community, kudos for the station, and another Emmy nomination.

Meanwhile, as some colleagues built their days around puppy breaks, McCarren used her voice memo/dictation more and learned to type with one hand. “You would not believe how time-efficient I have to be,” she says with a grin. “When he napped” — referring to Bunce, but Nigel too — “I would have to write that story.”  

Fans follow fur; film at 5

Puppies attract eyeballs, so Washington began to take notice. WUSA9 doesn’t release ratings figures, but McCarren’s own social media metrics spiked as Bunce and Nigel grew. Blogging about President Obama, she once told an interviewer, brought 6,000 hits. Blogging about Bunce — in his voice — could bring half a million.

When Nigel came along, the station showed viewers his litter of fluffball siblings, his match with a tearful McCarren, his debut in a service dog vest. More than 1,000 viewers voted on his name. A WUSA9 Facebook subgroup, Team Nigel, has more than 100 superfans. Viewers send drawings and cards; one created a freeform cross-stitched portrait.

Occasionally McCarren’s social media feeds show a colleague playing canine kissy-face. Meteorologist Topper Shutt, clearly a dog person, has been known to roll around on the floor with a rambunctious puppy.

The dogs are a hit with competitors, too, who generously fill McCarren in on developments during courthouse trial coverage every time she returns from a puppy pit stop. During testimony, Nigel gnaws quietly at a frozen Kong filled with peanut butter or cottage cheese under her foot. When the two get back from outside, someone usually passes over a note: “At 2:53, police sgt testified that ….”

Mr. Nigel goes to Washington

Observers have noted that McCarren, ever perky, is even perkier these days. “Oh, I’m completely rejuvenated,” she agrees. “I see the world through a new set of eyes.”

She means optimistic, non-jaded — like the little boy who saw the ID number tattooed in Nigel’s ear by Canine Companions for Independence, which provides dogs to children, adults, and veterans with disabilities, and asked, “Is that his cell-phone number?”

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Dan Berschinski with Bunce and Andrea McCarren with Nigel. (Photos provided by Andrea McCarren)

She also means the eyes of those who need a service dog’s services. Bunce left for “finishing school” early in 2017 and was matched with Dan Berschinski, who was leading an Army infantry platoon in Afghanistan when he lost both legs above the knee. Berschinski, McCarren, Bunce and Nigel met at WUSA9 last fall, where they were swarmed with excited reporters and techs. Video of the happy reunion was seen 611,000 times in its first 24 hours online.

And then there’s the effect on McCarren’s career specifically. Sources fill her phone and email, and ideas on fake service dogs, post-traumatic stress, military sexual assault and more blossom all because a dog in a vest came along. The stories and series McCarren has brought to WUSA9 have helped the public — particularly service members and people with disabilities — as never before.

Vice president and station manager Michael Valentine, who arrived just before Bunce left, denies that WUSA9 coverage has tilted a bit toward veterans and disability issues since Bunce’s arrival in 2015. But he and McCarren discussed that if another puppy came after Bunce, the station should leverage it: “Let’s fundamentally try to change the law and get funding for veterans with PTSD who need service dogs, which are expensive.”

So last summer, with Nigel just three months old, Nigel, McCarren and photojournalist John Mogor spent a week on Capitol Hill buttonholing representatives for the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers Act, a pilot program to help reduce the high veteran suicide rate. Then they explained “how a bill becomes a law” with Nigel’s congressman, Jamie Raskin.

Viewers and fans nationwide have responded to the ongoing coverage. Ninety percent of Senate cosponsors signed on after WUSA9 started reporting on the issue. On the House side alone, the bill has gone from fewer than a dozen cosponsors to 210.

“If the dog is an added bonus and vehicle to tell these stories and get notice and create change, that is awesome,” says Valentine. “Over the years you have not seen us do a lot of fluff stories to get people to watch because of the dogs. That is not who we are. But the dog’s been part of stories where we’ve pushed for government change. And I think that’s really important.”

For her part, McCarren wants to keep up the gig after Nigel heads for his future this fall. “Who knew my career would take such a dramatic turn this late in it?” she says. “This is the best volunteer gig ever.”

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