Maddy Gibson, a 38 year old Navy veteran, divides the world into fear and peace, loneliness and comfort, and the demarcation has four legs and pointed ears. Lady, Gibson’s Basenji mix, is a rescue dog that has found both a higher purpose and a forever home as Gibson’s service dog. Lady and Gibson graduated from Pets and Vets, a program that seeks to connect veterans with rescue dogs that have passed the tests required to become service dogs. The veteran and soon-to-be service dog spend several months training together and learning how to work as a team.
Service dogs are not always thought of as lifesaving intervention, but the love and careful attention of a service dog can be enough to pull a veteran back from the edge of suicide and out of depression. “[Lady has] changed my life so much,” Gibson said. “Before, I didn’t get out of bed much. I didn’t go out much. To me, the world was terrible and humans were awful… [Now, Lady acts] kind of like a social lubricant. I can talk to human beings again, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Gibson is not the only graduate of Pets and Vets to get a new lease on life. Cliff Waugaman, a 34 year old veteran, continued to struggle with PTSD even with medication and therapy until he met Django, his boxer-bulldog mix. “He calms me,” Waugaman said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Samuel Phillips had a more difficult time than many other veterans who are matched with service dogs. Phillips had been bitten in the face by a Rottweiler when he was a child and had to conquer a fear of dogs in addition to dealing with already crippling psychological issues. Despite this, Mackenzie, his bull terrier mix, has come to represent safety. “She’s the reason why I went back [outside,] why I’m able to go to those places [I went before my deployment.] They bring back memories, good memories, for a change.”
Pets and Vets is far from the only program that trains rescue dogs to become service animals, and increasing numbers of organizations and medical professionals are encouraging veterans to get a service dog. Hopefully, this trend will continue and give both veterans and rescue dogs a new lease on life.