I’m one of the few people lucky enough to find a passion and purpose in life—and that purpose is being a dog trainer. Before I became a trainer, I served as a member of the United States Marine Corp. With such a background in the military (including service in combat), I am both sensitive and aware of people suffering from debilitating illnesses; whether that be PTSD or a physical injury. I have worked extensively with service dogs and know how dramatically having one can benefit a person who experiences both mental and physical limitations. They can expand the scope of their owner’s abilities and the quality of their lives.
What people don’t often know is that a service dog simply needs to be able to perform a task that will improve a person’s quality of life. A service dog’s abilities may include: picking up a life-saving EpiPen that’s been dropped, providing counter support and balance, scent detection for low blood-sugar levels, and assistance for the blind or hard of hearing.
They can come in all different shapes and sizes—from a cute little Havanese to a big and strong Great Dane. But regardless of the pup’s size, what matters are their remarkable abilities and the duties they uphold for their owners.
From years of experience, I know it is so much deeper than just these physical services. There is a powerful emotional connection and bond that develops between dogs and their owners when they learn and grow together. It is an intimate symbiotic partnership which offers each a role and a team-based connection.
As a trainer I’ve seen countless examples of owners and their pets deeply tied together. There are no business hours for a service dog—they are with their owners 24/7 and because of this, the bond becomes incredibly strong. This bond is what creates the long-lasting relationships and the ability for dogs to seemingly anticipate an owner’s emotions, actions and desires, just like in any close relationship among humans.
The psychological component is what makes service dogs so important, because it’s not just the external part of the injury that is crippling, but the internal mental effects that are often more painful. Anxiety, depression, frustration, and loss of self-esteem and confidence can be crippling and dangerous. I’ve noticed that people who suffer from a disability can quickly become a shell of themselves because they don’t know how to deal with their new life situation. Fortunately, when they get their super dog, they start on the path to becoming themselves again.
When we first started filming Rescue Dog to Super Dog, I was introduced to a woman named Diana who was injured during a rock climbing accident. It was clear that she was in more pain than appeared on the surface. The accident shattered both of her ankles so badly that one of her legs had to be amputated just below the knee. The injury also took away an element of her willpower, as she simply didn't know how to handle the sudden changes—like the attention when people would stare at her prosthetic leg or ask about what happened. It became apparent to her that it was easier for her to shut herself away in her house, far from the rest of the world.
When I introduced a little muppet furball named Morrison into her life, it changed everything.
I remember when I first asked her what behaviors we could teach a dog that would make her life better, she didn’t know how to answer; she didn’t know what task a dog could perform that would help her, because even though the physical disability made simple tasks more difficult and painful, the real pain was emotional and non-physical.
Nonetheless, she still knew that a dog would make her life better, and her instincts were right. Today she is happier than she’s been in a long time: she gets out more and is living again the way she wants to—and it’s all through the help of that furball, Morrison.
These dogs give them a reason to get up in the morning, to go outside in the sun, and it gives someone who was once hopeless and lost a new outlook on life.
Kalani, who was also one of our rescue dog recipients, suffered from a severe case of PTSD and depression. He speaks often about his connection to his new super dog, saying, “Bas has given me a sense a purpose. He’s never going to give up on me, and I’m never going to give up on him.”
A service dog’s finest hours come when they rest their head on your lap, and even though they can’t say it, they are there for you—their eyes tell it all. It’s the moments when all you want to do is cry and for some reason your dog knows what you’re feeling, and knows that even when you have tears in your eyes, a good laugh is really what you need. This is what makes dogs our best friends, and being with one can make a person’s life whole again.
The reality series Rescue Dog to Super Dog premieres Aug. 12 on Animal Planet.