By Ranny Green
Photos courtesy Jerry and Lois Photography
From fostering dogs for deployed servicemen to supplying others returning from a war zone with diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the focus at home has been buoying the mental stability of these individuals.
But what about their families?
“It’s not that they are forgotten,” says Dana Babb, head trainer at Paws-Abilities Total Dog Center in Fife, “it’s important we recognize our military families need help too in time of war. When husbands and wives are deployed abroad, there is a void at home by spouses and children for companionship, protection and, in some cases, service dogs.”
Before leaving for Afghanistan in July, Staff Sgt. Jason Sasser, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said, “Bailey (a young Alaskan husky mix) is going to be good for everyone in the family.” The dog is enrolled in a unique Paws-Abilities Military Family Dog Training Program that lists six participant families. With 10 percent discounts for military families, it offers extensive Service Puppy and Service Dog programs with plenty of phone and in-person guidance by Babb outside the classroom.
Bailey has offered Sasser and his wife, Jennifer, all the predictable challenges of puppyhood. Both were involved in initial orientation, evaluation, puppy kindergarten and basic obedience with the dog. They are, however, targeting the 6-month-old animal to become a full-fledged service dog for their son, Brady, 8, who has cerebral palsy.
With his mother’s assistance, Brady is working Bailey. “It’s kinda tough,” she admits because both Jason and I are more assertive with the dog, which is critical right now. We just need to instill some of that in Brady. Bailey is testing Brady and knows she can get away with a lot more with him right now. She prefers being around adults, so Dana is suggesting things we can do to develop a bond between the two of them.”
For example, at feeding time Brady will hold Bailey’s dish in his lap until the meal is finished. The bonding process also calls for Bailey to be sleeping with Brady. “We’re taking baby steps here, but every one of them is designed to strengthen that bond and respect between the two,” adds Mrs. Sasser.
The dog helps balance Brady when he is moving about with a walker. Bailey will also be trained to pick up items for the Tacoma third-grader at home and out in public. “She will also give him a greater sense of independence and a comfort zone outside the house,” adds Mrs. Sasser. “Since Jason left for Afghanistan, Brady has had a fear of being left in a room by himself for a length of time. Having Bailey there alongside him has helped him cope with that.”
That comfort zone extends all the way to Afghanistan as well. “Every time Jason calls home,” says Mrs. Sasser, “he asks about Bailey’s training progress. The dog is providing him an important link with home that we never had before. When he returns home in a year, hopefully Bailey and Brady will be a full-fledged working team.”
A 1998 car accident left Julia Broussard, of Tacoma, in a coma for 1½ weeks, resulting in a brain injury and petit mal seizures beginning a year later. Her husband, Doug, a Department of Defense field service representative who travels six months a year, is highly concerned about her welfare.
She later obtained Miss Bailey, a 5-year-old American pit-bull terrier for her teenage daughter Heather to show in 4H and United Kennel Club junior handling competition.
After Heather moved out of the house at age 18, Miss Bailey began bonding tightly to Julia Broussard. “When I came out of the seizures, she would bump me with her nose, letting me know they were over. There was another occasion when I put a pot of water on the stove and forgot about it. She came running into the bedroom, dancing all about, which I thought she was telling me she wanted to go outside. Instead, she led me toward the kitchen where the water was steaming all about the stove area. That was when I realized this dog has the potential to help me,” she explains.
“A lot of dogs will simply recognize a need and jump in and help,” says Babb. “They require training, of course, but when they naturally recognize a need is there for their caregiver, the training process becomes so much smoother.”
For Broussard, Miss Bailey leads her to her parked car when out in public, alerts to seizures and guides her to an exit if she becomes confused in a store.
Because Miss Bailey, now 12, is slowing up, Broussard, a Federal Way legal assistant, obtained an American Staffordshire bull terrier, Piddles, to replace her. The latter is enrolled in the Paws-Abilities military family dog training program.
“Piddles is all puppy but she is learning the needed skills nicely,” adds Babb. “But Julia is very intense and needs to lighten up and make the training process fun. In a situation like this, some dogs intuitively learn from their predecessor, but it’s important that the handler try not to compare the two. No two dogs are alike, and here one is 12 and the other is just 2.”
Broussard admittedly “does not do change well.” Hence the younger Piddles’ energy level has prompted her to become more active, from trips to shopping malls or neighborhood walks to simply tossing a Frisbee or tennis ball in the backyard. And, of course, there is the training in public environments, when she is sometimes joined by Babb.
A somewhat relieved Doug Broussard adds, “Being able to rely on Julia using her service dogs, I don’t have to constantly worry about her having panic attacks due to high noise levels or everyday stressful situations. That enables me to better concentrate on my work. It is comforting to see the relationship that she shares with the dogs and how they work together seamlessly.”
For Amy Even, a 22-year military spouse and mother of a 17-year-old special-needs daughter, Camille, Murphy, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever, has become a dependable working partner. The dog, which she obtained at 11 weeks of age, is a diabetes-alert beacon, and also assists her with mobility and retrieval of household items and clothes and can even bring food to her when it is within reach.
Like Broussard, Even obtained the puppy for her special-needs daughter, Camille, but 18 months later she recognized a need for her own service dog after her physician suggested it.
Babb adds, “Murphy and Amy make a great team and both are eager to learn. They were quick learners in obedience, and Murphy has a special ability to help detect Amy’s low blood-sugar levels that cause falls and blackouts.”
Even suffered a head injury in late April after passing out from a low blood sugar count while driving, resulting in her car leaving the road and striking some trees on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where her husband Dan is stationed. Murphy was not with her at the time.
On a later incident, with Murphy seated alongside her, Even’s blood sugar dropped into the dangerously low 30s and she almost passed out again. “Murphy noticed I was having trouble. He went into my purse, pulled out my blood monitor and placed it within reach. I was able to pull off the road and avoid another accident.”
“The Paws-Abilities program has been a lifesaver for me,” she adds. “It has given me motivation and helped me realize the incredible assistance dogs can provide physically and psychologically. And Dana has always been there, night or day, when an issue came up and I needed her.”
Even recalls the time when she frantically called Babb from aboard a shuttle bus on base. “Murphy became scared of the loud noise from the wheelchair lift and I knew I would have trouble getting him off. I called Dana and she talked me through what I needed to do. And it worked perfectly.”
Murphy’s companionship, she explains, is equally important as his physical assistance, citing emotional support, added confidence and hilarious antics. “He cracks Camille and I up all the time. He’ll play-chase after the cats and slide on the floor at the end of his run. Or he’ll grab a towel and just start shaking it while jumping around in middle of the room. He loves his ball and you never know when he might suddenly start tossing it the air. He helps relieve a lot of stress in the household. ”
Although the couple is separated, Dan continues to remain involved in Murphy’s continued training. He says, “It gives me a sense of relief knowing Murphy is always there for Amy and Camille. That dog is a big-time overachiever and leaves me feeling he can do just about anything, which is all you can ask of a dog.”
Babb concludes, “These families are at the beginning of an amazing adventure. I feel privileged to watch and help to arrange the quiet, magical ‘miracle’ of the dogs’ ability to work with us. Brady is starting to develop confidence and patience. His dog is learning commands and performing them for him. Having his friends notice and ask him to bring his dog to school and talk about her is a huge psychological step forward for him.
“People complimenting Julia on her well-trained pit-bull service dog is a equally fulfilling. And Amy beaming about how working with her dog is special and fun, that tugs at my heart.” From these qualities, Babb adds, flow self-assurance, success and extraordinary friendships.