When Army National Guard veteran Suzanne Smith feels overwhelmed in a crowded place, she looks down at her ICAN service-dog-in-training, a Yorkshire Terrier named Dobby, and says, “Find the door.”
That distinct phrase signals Dobby to immediately find the nearest exit and remove Suzanne from the situation causing her stress as quickly as possible.
This one cue has changed Suzanne’s life.
Since returning from active duty in 2004, where she served as a physician assistant, Suzanne has struggled with service-related trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe anxiety. This developed after she survived two sexual attacks on tour in Iraq. While she sustained no long-term physical injuries from the abuse, the assaults left her with emotional wounds she feared would never heal.
“I never wanted to leave my home,” Suzanne recalled. “I wouldn’t even go to the grocery store unless it was at odd hours. I was too afraid.”
Her biggest challenge, though, was trying to be strong for her four children.
“I tried so hard to appear ‘normal’ on the outside, but inside I was screaming,” she remembered. “I spent my life just going through the motions.”
Like many veterans, it took Suzanne years to seek help. Thankfully, in 2018, after months of fighting suicidal thoughts, she began speaking with a counselor through the Veterans Health Administration, who later suggested she explore the idea of a service dog.
As luck would have it, when Suzanne began her search, ICAN had just launched its new Veterans Service Division in her hometown of Fort Wayne—making the prospect of a service dog seem much more within reach because she could stay in familiar settings.
However, in addition to the emotional scars Suzanne carries from military duty, she struggles with mobility issues due to an injury she sustained while in Iraq and later complications from an unsuccessful surgery that tried to improve movement in her hand and arm. As a result, the limitations to her physical abilities made her doubt she could independently manage a big dog.
That all changed when Suzanne realized ICAN’s newest division was willing to train dogs of all breeds and sizes within a specific set of parameters.
“That piqued my interest,” Suzanne said, “because I always thought service dogs had to be ‘big’ dogs.”
But now, after just a few months of training, her Yorkie Dobby, who weighs only five pounds, proves that all dogs, no matter their size, can make a big difference.
Dobby has already learned how to soothe Suzanne when she has a PTSD attack. He can recognize when she is becoming anxious and will ease her stress by licking her face—something he also does if he senses Suzanne is having a nightmare when she is asleep.
Dobby is also training to retrieve objects from the ground when she cannot bend over and get them. He is even learning to fetch her keys and phone by name and bring them to her.
And under the guidance of ICAN trainer Deborah Cotton, Suzanne is also teaching Dobby how to lay under a chair and stay there for an extended period so he can fly on an airplane with her when she visits her children living out of state.
“Dobby has enhanced my independence,” said Suzanne. “For me, he’s no different from someone’s cane, walker, or wheelchair. And, now, I don’t know what I would do without him.”
This reclaimed independence has also given Suzanne the courage to step out of her comfort zone and try new things again.
“I’ve missed out on so much over the last nearly 20 years,” said Suzanne. “I lost the ability to find joy in life. But with Dobby, I am regaining the courage to go out and live life again.
In fact, since training with ICAN, she hopes to pay it forward to the organization that has changed her life by becoming a volunteer after Dobby graduates— something she would never have been able to do if it wasn’t for Dobby by her side.
“Because of Dobby, I can say for the first time in a long time that I am happy,” Suzanne said. “He gave me my life back, and now I can see a future.”
You can help veterans like Suzanne find independence again. Learn more at icandog.org.