Loreen Pantaleone worked in the finance industry, though years before that she had been known for her beautiful hand-painted portraits of family pets.
When she heard about the passing of the great MWD Gabe K153 SSD – a U.S Army Specialized Search Dog, American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Award Winner, and beloved family member of his partner, Sgt. Charles Shuck – she was deeply touched emotionally. She wanted to give Sgt. Shuck a gift, and she asked him if she could paint him a portrait of his beloved friend, who had lost his final battle with a terrible opponent: cancer.
“The moment I saw the pink vet wrap bandage with the paw print design taping the shunt to his foreleg, I knew that America had just lost one of its favorite and beloved K9 heroes,” Pantaleone told iHeartDogs.com. “When Gabe passed on February 13, 2013, and I saw that photo, I decided I wanted to give Sgt. Shuck one of my paintings and asked his permission to do so. Sgt. Shuck was touched with the offer and quickly approved of my use of one of his photos of Gabe, in particular, one of Gabe in the Rose Parade.”
It took her 174 hours to complete the tribute to Gabe. While she worked on it, she was “struck” by several more photos she saw on Facebook of other K9 Heroes:
“K9 Zeke lay on the emergency table at Rossmoyne Animal Emergency Trauma Center with a bullet wound that struck his jugular vein. Zeke’s handler Cpl. Ty Miek, is leaning over Zeke’s body that just moments before was still latched on to the suspects arm even after he had been shot. Cpl. Miek is visibly upset while stroking his canine partner’s unconscious face while he receives fluids and a blood transfusion to stabilize his body before attempting to repair the damage.
MWD Bak and two other American soldiers were killed by an insider attack during an ambush by a rogue local police officer in Afghanistan. His handler survived and his photo shortly after the attack shows the pain of his experience, but it’s not from his physical pain, it’s from the loss of his 3-year old German Shepherd partner that he called “Son”. I saw this photo on March 11th, 2013.”
These images deeply affected Pantaleone. With the passing of another K9 Hero dog, Ape, she said she was “shaken to the core.”
“I had not realized just how many working dogs we had within our military and law enforcement, and certainly didn’t realize the injury or death toll was so high,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for two days.”
On the third morning, while she continued to work on Gabe’s portrait, Pantaleone realized she wanted to create immortal tributes for all of these dogs, for their handlers, and for the public.
“I want to commemorate each of these K9 heroes with a donated painting and educate the public so they too know the work that these heroes accomplish. I had never seen our law enforcement and our military showing such humanity before. It’s as if the public is trained to think that these men and women have no feelings and are disconnected from caring or emotion. Those photos and the quotes I read about the handlers during those incidents showed a humanity rarely seen in those careers and it changed the way I saw them – they were human and their K9 partners were NOT a piece of equipment to do their jobs.”
So, that’s when she decided to create the K9 Hero Portrait Project – to not only honor and pay tribute to the teamwork these men and women have with their canine partners – but to show the public the human side. The devotion, and love they have for their dogs.
“Whether tracking small traces of narcotics, explosives, human remains or acting as a service dog, these canines are worthy of being commemorated,” she said. “With the current media outlets and social networking, it is becoming widely accepted that our ‘tough as nails’ soldiers and law enforcement officers can show their feelings about their K9 partners. This has a humanizing effect that will help garner more support towards the uniforms that serve our country.”
Helping To Heal
Pantaleone’s work doesn’t just commemorate a dog’s life, it also helps those left behind to heal. Just this year, she had the opportunity to help a police officer for the Oklahoma City Police Department after the loss of his K9 Officer Kye.
One of her prior recipients, Corporal Warren Cavanagh, contacted Pantaleone in February 2015 to ask a favor. He had been assigned as a critical incident mentor to SSgt. Ryan Stark, Kye’s handler. Critical incident mentors are those who have experienced the loss of a partner, whether human or K9, and know exactly the stages of grief, anger, and healing that need to take place and are assigned to other officers who have recently been affected. Pantaleone said:
“Cavanagh explained that through his portrait of K9 Fargo, he was able to ‘finally heal’ from that tragic night’s event and he felt ‘Ryan needs one of your portraits so he can heal.’ Kye had been killed on August 25 of 2014 and SSgt. Stark had a difficult time returning to work. After being assigned another K9, he slowly was able to regain his desire to be a handler and get back to work, but Cavanagh ‘knew’ what Stark needed.”
They planned an amazing unveiling for the surprise portrait, which you can watch below. (Warning: you WILL cry watching this video!)
A Charitable Gift
You may be wondering why she doesn’t charge for these tributes. After all, if you want a painting for your late grandmother, you will pay a hefty price to most artists. It takes hours and hours and incredible skill to effectively capture someone (human or K9) in a portrait.
“It’s our way of saying ‘Thank You’ to the men and women who serve our country, stateside and abroad,” she explained. “The current climate with law enforcement and sometimes even with military (people who are opposed to “war” or always blaming law enforcement), this is a perfect way to show them on a larger scale that there are people who support them and believe in what they are doing to keep our nation safe.”
As the requests started to roll in (she got 4 within the first 24 hours of posting a message on a military dogs Facebook group), Pantaleone realized she may not be able to keep up with the portraits and her full-time finance job. Her family made the decision that they would financially support the project, and she quit her job to paint hero portraits full time.
For the past three years, Pantaleone’s family has been funding 90 percent of the project, with just 10 percent coming from public donations.
Ways You Can Help
Since her group is non-profit, donations are always welcome and tax deductible. So please consider making a donation by going to her website.
Another way you can help is through her “Painting It Forward Program.” You can commission Pantaleone to paint a portrait of your family dog (does not have to be a working dog) which will then fund one of her tribute paintings. This is such an amazing gift – you get a tribute to your own dog while giving a serviceperson the chance to have one of their fallen K9.