An abandoned dog rescued by an Army combat veteran not only got a new leash on life, but found renewed purpose by saving his veteran from the crushing symptoms of PTSD.
Determined to his join band of brothers in combat
In 2004 Justin decided to see more of the world outside of his hometown of Avery, Texas. He joined the Army on his seventeenth birthday and served in the Army Reserve for four years, including a deployment to Iraq from 2006 to 2007. Currently stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado as a sergeant, he is poised to retire just one month short of celebrating his tenth anniversary in the Army. Of the 60 months he spent on active duty, more than half – 37 months – were spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During this time, Justin held the position of personnel clerk, but his heart was with his combat buddies on the field. He begged his command to let him serve in battle, but they denied his request due to the fact he was considered essential personnel. But Justin was determined and would ultimately fulfill his goal.
As soon as his deployment was over, Justin signed up for active duty and trained as an artillery soldier and cannon crewmember at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was subsequently stationed at Fort Hood, Texas and deployed again to Iraq, and later transferred to Fort Carson, Colorado. In 2010, Justin deployed to Afghanistan for a third and final time.
What Justin has enjoyed most about his Army career is the bonds of brotherhood built with his fellow soldiers. He still keeps in touch with members of his former units. Justin’s last two deployments were spent entirely on patrol bases, where he enjoyed living on the land and going out into the field, “just 22 guys and me.”
After his last deployment, Justin experienced nightmares, bad dreams, and difficulties controlling his temper, all symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Aware of the physical and psychological health benefits of companion pets, Justin and his wife decided that it was time to add a dog to their family to relieve his PTSD-related tension and stress.
The Army veteran was no stranger to pets in the home; he grew up with dogs and cats as a child. When he was 14 years old, he left home and moved in with a friend who kept him busy working with horses and herding cattle. Australian Shepherds and Cattle Dogs, known as Heelers, became Justin’s favorite dog breed during this period of his life due to their intelligence, working drive and high energy level while herding cattle.
As luck would have it, Justin and his family found Duke, a then two and one-half year-old mix between an Australian Shepherd and a Blue Heeler at PAWS for Life Animal Welfare & Protection Society in Pueblo, Colorado, a Pets for Patriots pet adoption partner that helps place the most overlooked pets – adult and special needs animals, and large dogs – with military veterans.
Duke was relinquished to the shelter when his previous owner was jailed. As far as anyone could tell, he had been kept a “backyard dog” at his former home; while he was well-mannered, he apparently received little training. In April 2012, Duke was honorably adopted by Justin, his wife and their four children.
Rescue dog saves his rescuer
After he moved in, it became clear that Duke always wanted to stay close to his humans, especially Justin. The Army combat veteran bought a wooden crate for Duke to sleep in, but Duke chewed out of it the first night. When Justin replaced it with a metal crate, Duke again chewed through his new crate.
“Duke just wanted to lay next to me all the time,” Justin recalls of the dog’s first days in his new home.
Perhaps Duke sensed that he had a purpose, and fulfilling it was incompatible with sleeping in a crate, separated from the man he felt compelled to save.
About the same time, Justin noticed that Duke’s presence eased his PTSD symptoms tremendously. When Justin hits a PTSD low, Duke automatically lays his head on the veteran’s leg to make him feel better.
“Duke looks at me like he knows exactly how I feel,” says Justin. “He’ll make your heart melt just with his eyes and the way he holds his ears.”
As it happens, Duke had some issues of his own, perhaps making him more sensitive to his new owner’s challenges. He suffered from separation anxiety, and Justin started taking the dog with him everywhere he could.
“When I’m out in public with him, I’m totally focused on Duke,” says Justin. “I’m no longer hyper-vigilant out there and nowhere near as reactive as I used to be.”
Inspired by Duke’s calming nature, Justin and his wife looked into service dog training, but all the organizations they contacted turned them down.
“No one would train Duke,” says Justin. “They all said that he wasn’t the right breed, they didn’t have enough of Duke’s history, or gave some other excuse.”
Undeterred, Justin decided he would train Duke himself.
“Duke made it so easy. I hardly had to put any work into it,” says the Army sergeant. “It was like Duke already knew his purpose in life was to rescue me.”
From shelter mutt to PTSD service dog
Justin soon began taking Duke to his visits with his off-post therapist, who immediately noticed Duke’s calming effect on Justin, and wrote a note attesting that Duke’s presence was necessary to allay Justin’s anxiety and other PTSD symptoms.
“I told my chain of command that if they want me to come to work at 10:00 pm, 11:00 pm, or 1-2 am – prime PTSD hours – then my dog has to come with me,” says Justin, adding that his battery commander agreed.
Duke’s presence not only calms Justin, but other soldiers and veterans as well. When the dog started attending Justin’s group therapy sessions with him, other members of the group who previously would not speak up opened up when given the chance to pet Duke during therapy.
Unfortunately, Duke was not allowed to attend Justin’s group therapy lessons for long; he was barred from the counseling offices because he was not a certificated service dog. Justin’s wife realized how vital Duke was to her husband’s well-being, and sought help immediately through social media to get Duke certified by taking the public access test he would need to qualify as a service dog. Two trainers responded to her plea and on short notice, administered the public access test to Justin and Duke.
Although Duke had received no formal training, he conformed to every aspect of the test; the two passed with flying colors.
Accepting life with PTSD
Justin expected Duke to be nothing more than a family pet, but his expectations were set too low.
“Duke has turned out be a hundredfold more than I expected,” he says.
The Army veteran was similarly impressed with the support he received through Pets for Patriots, a nationally operating charity connecting the most at-risk shelter pets with military veterans. In addition to the discounted adoption fee he received from PAWS for Life because he is a Pets for Patriots member, Justin received a generous gift card from the charity’s Veterans’ Pet Food Bank program within days of bringing Duke home, and enjoys an ongoing 10% discount on veterinary care through Westside Animal Hospital – “an amazing place with super-nice staff” and Pets for Patriots veterinary partner. Finally, Justin and his wife appreciate the Pets for Patriots volunteers who called them periodically to make sure Duke was fitting in well with their family.
Before adopting Duke, Justin used to be afraid to tell anyone that he suffers from PTSD. Now, he’ll tell anyone who asks:
“I got PTSD, I have to live with PTSD, but I’m not going to let it stop me from doing what I want.”
With Duke, Justin snowboards, kayaks, and even attends country music concerts.
“When we’re out in public, it’s like Duke is telling me, ‘don’t worry, Daddy, I got your back.’”
How does your pet make you feel secure?