COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — “We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It’s the best deal man has ever made, “ – M. Facklam.
For centuries, dogs have not only been the constant companions of humans but they have been utilized in day-to-day activities to assist their owners with tasks at hand. Today, many dogs serve in a capacity to facilitate in the mobility of those with limiting physical factors.
Service dogs can range from being a person’s eyes, sensing a seizure or low blood sugar, to sniffing out improvised explosive devices on the battlefield.
For some of the Air Force’s wounded warrior athletes, service dogs provide so much more than just physical assistance.
“Mentally I was in a place where I needed a companion,” said Staff Sgt. August O’Neil about his service dog, Kai. “If I get really angry or very depressed, he senses it and he comes over and puts his head on my lap or my chest to change my mood, which is extremely helpful.”
O’Neil also uses Kai for balancing and to help provide a barrier if people are getting too close, or approaching too quickly.
“He’s a part of me just like my crutches are a part of me and, soon, just like my prosthetic will be a part of me,” O’Neil said. “He’ll pick up my phone, wallet, keys – even though he hates doing that because he’s not a retriever – he’ll look at me like, what…you can’t pick that up yourself?”
O’Neil attributes much of his successful healing to the bond he has with Kai.
“He has definitely helped me have a positive outlook,” he said. “At the beginning of this year, I was spinning down a lot, and he’s pretty much been the sole reason that’s kept me up.”
Retired Master Sgt. Kyle Burnett, who also trains service dogs, agrees that the bond between the dog and the owner is the most important part of the relationship.
“The dog has to know you, and you have to have a bond,” she said. “After I got hurt in 2009, Moe started to pick up things that I didn’t realize he was doing purposely. Anytime we’d be out, he’d always face the opposite direction as me when my back wasn’t against a wall, which really helped with hyper-vigilance. I would know he would alert me that someone was behind me.”
Burnett’s dog, Moe, also helps her find things she’s lost, and comforts her during nightmares.
“He would lay on top of me until I would calm down and then he would get off,” she said. “It’s kind of like swaddling a baby — you have tactile points in your chest. It’s a physical calming down.”
Burnett’s other service dog, Charlie, and Moe are what she calls “obediently disobedient” by stepping in to help her when she isn’t able to help herself.
“When I dissociate, (Moe) will come up and start nudging against me,” she said. “Charlie kept me from sleepwalking out of my room by sitting in the doorway and just shuffling around until I woke up.”
Burnett said the dogs have also made it easier for her to talk to people again, because most people begin a conversation with questions about the dogs.
“They’ve given me my life back in that way,” she said.
Service dogs giving athletes their lives back is a common thread among all of them but one has his service dog to thank for saving his life.
“She was with me when the explosion happened,” said Tech. Sgt. Leonard Anderson about Azza, his former military working dog and current service dog. “She was with me through all the combat – through everything – she was around for all of it.”
Azza now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the explosion that caused Anderson’s injury.
“I like to tell people that I’m more her service dog because she has such severe PTSD issues with large crowds and loud noises,” Anderson said. “So, believe it or not, I’m more her crutch.”
He wouldn’t have it any other way, though, and making sure he was able to keep Azza after his injury was one of his largest requests.
“She understands what I’ve been through,” he said. “I talk to her every day – she doesn’t talk back – but just having that provides a huge mental pickup.”
As a K-9 handler, Anderson recognizes the need for service dogs in the wounded veteran community.
“The service dogs are huge, especially when it comes to wounded vets,” he said. “In the end, it’s not just about what they do for you physically — it’s your partner — it’s your new soul mate in life to carry that disability with you, and to help you get over everything involved with the disability, whether it’s mental or physical.”
It isn’t just the service member who benefits from having a service dog around. Retired Tech. Sgt. Keith Sekora said his dog, Pintler, helps calm everyone in the house.
“It’s not just me, he really helps the whole family,” he said. “He spreads the love.”
Sekora’s wife, Andrea, said she trusts Pintler to take care of Sekora in any situation.
“He knows where he is; he watches him,” she said. “Whenever he sees him getting a little wobbly or off balance he’s right there to catch him and help him back up. I have a lot more confidence in Keith doing things on his own because I know Pintler’s there to help him up.”
Pintler helps Sekora with balance, as well as picking up objects, turning lights on and coping with PTSD.
“He can sense I’m even being triggered before it happens and he’s right there,” Sekora said.
The service dogs at the 2014 Warrior Games are present for every event, and constantly near their owners. While they can’t be seen on the court or in the pool, the service dogs are as close to the edge as they can get, usually cheering along with everyone else.