June 29, 2014

The Healing Power of a Service Dog

Article in the Huffington Post

Written by Nick Bennett

The rocket blast came two months into my deployment in Iraq. Ten years and 26 surgeries later, my hands and legs were physically repaired, but the loss of muscle in my right leg made it hard for me to keep my balance, turning simple tasks such as bending to pick up something off the floor into a struggle. The things I used to do every day — go the grocery store, take my kids to the park, or even enjoy a ball game — became triggers for my stress and anxiety. Because of my PTSD, I couldn't leave the house without the constant fear that someone was going to kill me. I figured my life was over as I knew it.

I was wrong.

I attended a Wounded Warrior Project event in Chicago and saw dozens of veterans with service dogs. I had never thought about or even considered getting a dog before. When I returned home to Indiana, I researched service dog organizations and came across the Indiana Canine Assistance Network (ICAN), an organization that trains service dogs for placement with people with disabilities throughout Indiana. The training process for a service dog lasts two years, and each year ICAN graduates two classes of puppies, once in the summer and once in the winter. I put in an application to ICAN in October 2012. A few weeks later, my application was approved.

In February 2013, I called ICAN to see if there were any dogs that could potentially work for me. I was told that unfortunately, they did not have a dog for me at that time, and it would likely be December 2013 or January 2014 before I would have one. I was devastated.

On Friday, April 12, 2013, my life changed. I received an email from ICAN inviting me to attend a call-in, an event where you meet a dog to see if it's a good match. Attending a call-in doesn't necessarily mean that the dog you meet is the one you will take home after graduation.

That's the day I knew I was going to be okay. When Festus walked into the room, I saw a life I never imagined possible walking toward me. For a moment, I remembered who I had been 9 years before I had left for Iraq. It was hard for me to wrap my head around it at the time, but I soon realized this red ball of fur was going to give me my life and my legs back.

Festus had already completed his two years of training, but we spent a week together to help him adjust to meeting my needs. With Festus at my side, my fear faded and my confidence started to return. I was able to climb a flight of stairs with him walking next to me, somethingI hadn't been able to do without feeling embarrassed or needing to be last in line for 9 years. He put himself between me and other people, stood behind me so no one could come up from behind and checked doorways for me. Even during that first day, Festus gave me a positive nudge to help calm me when I started having a flashback. I can now sit through a thunderstorm without earplugs.

With Festus' help, I'm able to take my kids to the park without the fear of not being able to tie their shoes. I'm able to bend down and reach that bottom shelf at the grocery store. I was able to attend a Chicago White Sox, game with my family and not have to leave every time the fireworks go off for a homerun. I'm able to live out my fatherhood because of Charlie Petrizzo.

I'm not sure when I first heard of Charlie Petrizzo or Project2Heal, the man and the organization that bred and trained Festus from birth to around 12 weeks and donated him to ICAN so he could complete his training and eventually be paired with me. All I knew was that I wanted to thank this man, a man who has also turned to animals to help him heal his scars, and now shares this healing power with veterans and people with special needs by breeding and training service dogs and companions and donating them to service organizations free of charge. When I learned Charlie was going to attend the ICAN graduation celebrating the completion of Festus' training, I was thrilled. Charlie and his wife, Sandy, came all the way to Indiana from North Carolina to see how the puppy they raised had grown up to help a wounded warrior after going through his own form of 'basic training' with Charlie.

I was given the opportunity to let Charlie know how much he meant to me that day. I told him about the 12 friends I lost in Iraq. I almost lost my own life, but Charlie and this very special dog gave it back to me.