While serving in the U.S. Army, service members are joined by a “battle buddy” – a friend to watch out for them. For some local veterans, that friend is four-legged and furry.
For more than 10 years, West Virginia University and Hearts of Gold have partnered to raise and train service dogs to be placed with people with disabilities, primarily veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
WVU students have successfully trained 140 dogs since 2007, including placing 11 service and nine emotional support dogs with local or regional veterans.
With the help of a grant from the Department of Defense, 10 more dogs can be trained to support area veterans.
“This grant allows us to build our relationship with our local veteran population and provide service animals to individuals who need them,” said Matt Wilson, associate dean for research in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “With this funding, we can develop a more formal application process which includes preparing veterans to understand and care for their new service dog.”
To be matched with a service dog, veterans must apply, enroll in a non-credit, online canine basics course and be able to travel to Morgantown for on-site training.
According to two local veterans, their service dogs are essential to living fulfilling lives.
West Virginia native George Davis retired from the Army in 1987 after serving his country for 20 years. During part of his military career, he flew reconnaissance planes in Vietnam and Korea.
Because of his experiences in the Vietnam War, Davis developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve been in and out of therapy since 1979, and it wasn’t until 2000 they diagnosed me with it,” he said. “I knew I was screwed up. I just didn’t know how bad.”
The disorder affected Davis’s confidence and, in 1982, he lost the ability to fly.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore, so I went back to being an intelligence officer,” he said.
After spending his post-Army career working in Washington, D.C., doing intelligence work, Davis retired and relocated to Fairmont where he became involved with a variety of veteran organizations.
His connections in the veteran community helped him discover Hearts of Gold and the service dog training program.
In early 2019, he applied to be matched with a service dog and was accepted into the program.
Making his way through the three-week online course required dedication and perseverance.
“It took me about five or six hours a night because I have no short-term memory left,” he said. “I’ve been on chemotherapy and had 13 surgeries in the past 16 years, so all of that anesthesia kills your short-term memory. The staff here was just so patient with me and worked with me so well.”
Before the class began, Davis went to scope out the service dog training facilities on the WVU Animal Science Farm where he met Zoey, his current service dog.
“She came right over to me and laid at my feet. I have never had a connection with a dog like her in my life,” he said. “Every few minutes or so when I’m sitting at the computer or watching television she comes over and lays her head on my lap, and those brown eyes just melt ya.”
Davis was prescribed medication for anxiety and panic attacks, but said he’s had to use it very little since Zoey came into his life.
“She likes to rough house and play like the rest of them, but when she’s around me, she has a very calming effect on me, so that’s been the biggest benefit,” he said.
Davis said a side-effect of his PTSD is having difficulties making friends, but Zoey has become more than just his service dog – she’s his best friend.
“She’s always there, and she’s always happy and concerned about me, so it’s like having a best friend, and I don’t have many,” he said.
Not all service dogs are used for mental health reasons.
For Anastasia Hilvers, her mobility and balance are dependent on a large mastiff named HooDoo Moon.
Enlisted during Operation Desert Storm, she was injured during training exercises and did not see action.
At one point after being discharged, Hilvers, who has a rare form of arthritis and an autoimmune disorder, found herself lying on the ground outside her home unable to get up because her leg stopped working.
“It occurred to me that I knew how to crawl because the Army taught you that. I just pulled myself with my arms all the way to my car and drove left legged with a clutch,” Hilvers said. “It was all I could do to get down the road to the next house, and I just thought that would have been such a stupid way to die.”
The fall landed her in the emergency room where she told the medical team she felt the situation could have been avoided if she had a large dog that was trained to come help her, and they urged her look into service animals.
After the accident, she underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries and relearned how to walk utilizing rehabilitation services
“I’m mostly made of metal,” she said. “Some people show off tats; I show off scars.”
HooDoo Moon, Hilvers’ second service dog, enables her to enjoy activities she wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
“Until you can’t walk, you have no clue how many places are dangerous,” she said. “Nature is not ADA compliant, and I love nature. Because of service dogs, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon. If I have a dog and a cane, I can pretty much do everything except climb trees. But, I don’t really want to do that.”
Hilvers stressed that while having a service dog is vital to her existence, it’s not a panacea.
Having a service dog requires a lot of training and hard work, but both Davis and Hilvers encourage veterans to seek out opportunities like the ones they were given.
“They teach you Esprit De Corps in the military and to have a battle buddy, but then vets lose that along with their entire structure,” Hilvers said. “They’ve seen some very bad things and a dog can help get them through that.”
For Lindsay Parenti, visiting instructor in the Davis College and director of program development for Hearts of Gold, seeing the success Davis and Hilvers have with their service dogs reinforces the importance of the program.
“It’s hugely rewarding for me to see people like them that just truly appreciate the help of service animals and are using the dogs in the way we intend for them to be used,” she said.
CONTACT: Lindsay Willey
Interim Director of Marketing and Communications
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
Call 1.855.WVU.NEWS for the latest West Virginia University news and information from WVUToday.
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.