By LOIS KINDLE
A bright-eyed yellow Lab named Scout has been training for almost two years to live his life for someone else. The Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy and eight other superheroes graduated July 19 as full-fledged service dogs for veterans living with PTSD and other disabilities.
The pups had met their new handlers 11 days earlier to live and train as teams on the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus in Palmetto. It was an opportunity for them to bond and get to know each other.
“Graduation is not an ending but a beginning,” said Suzy Wilburn, the school’s director of admissions and alumni support, as she spoke to the nine veterans sitting quietly with their new dogs at the ceremony. “You are now part of the Southeastern Guide Dogs family. We are only a phone call away.”
Guest speaker retired Navy Vice Admiral Joe Maguire, CEO of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and a former Navy SEALS commander, gave a speech that resonated among the warriors.
“As a veteran myself, I know that everyone who goes to war returns with wounds,” he said. “War changes a person…those who fight return home with visible wounds, and others with wounds that are less discernable but every bit as real.”
As he spoke, the veterans could be seen reaching under their chairs to pet their service dogs for reassurance.
“I have often heard Titus (Herman, Southeastern Guide Dogs CEO) say there are many veterans who return gravely wounded, not because they can no longer see but because they have seen too much. I have never heard anyone state it more accurately.”
Using an analogy of Navy SEAL training, Maguire went on to emphasize the importance of teammates, of always having someone to cover your back.
Navy SEAL trainees are assigned a swim buddy during their first day “to eat, sleep, run, swim, study and live with” throughout their training. The pair does everything together and are inseparable. Lives depend on it.
They “work so closely they no longer have to verbally communicate to know what the other is thinking or what needs to be done,” Maguire said.
The purpose of such training is for each SEAL to always and vigilantly look after the other. It is a relationship built on total trust.
“Southeastern Guide Dogs also believes that no one succeeds in life without a little help,” Maguire said. “They develop extraordinary partnerships between their dogs and the people who need them.
“Your service dog, your new swim buddy, will provide unconditional support and unceasing handler focus,” he continued. “Like SEAL teammates, your dog believes that his teammate is more important than he is. Today is just the beginning of your long relationship together…go explore, dream, discover and live life to the fullest.”
Moving on to a new chapter in life
Scout, who will turn 2 Sept. 29, has trained for the role since he was born. Initially placed in Southeastern Guide Dogs guide dog program, his career was changed about four months ago into the service dog program.
Given the pup’s personality, it was determined that he’s much better suited to the relationship between service dog and handler, which requires a 50/50 split in communication and mutual decision-making between them.
“For me, it’s kind of everything you’d want for your dog,” said Chris O’Leary, an Apollo Beach resident who trained Scout as a puppy with his partner Chip Barker. “As soon as I heard about (the career change), I felt it was a perfect fit for Scout’s personality and demeanor. He’s full of love and affection, and he likes to touch and be close. This job was written for him.”
Scout was carefully matched by his Southeastern Guide Dogs trainers with a 20-year military veteran named Les, who served as a special agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The decision to pair them was based on the trainers’ knowledge of both dog and handler.
“Scout will be a great service dog,” said service dogs program manager and trainer Kim Hyde. “He actually loves to work and is proud of himself and his handler. He’s intuitive, completely aware of his surroundings and very sensitive to emotions. During his training (with Les), I saw Scout respond and offer calming behavior when his handler became stressed.”
According to Les’ bio, his high-stress military job and its hyper-vigilant situations took its toll.
He became more and more reclusive and began avoiding crowds to lessen his anxiety when in them.
Les said he hopes Scout will help bring him out of his shell and “broaden his horizons.” The young service dog will also retrieve objects for his handler, who suffers from painful neck and back issues.
Morgan Watt, 46, received a Southeastern Guide Dogs service dog more than two years ago to help cope with PTSD. He knows firsthand how Scout will change Les’ life.
“When I got Foley, I was in one of the darkest moments of my life. I had no hope,” the Riverview resident said. “Foley puts me ahead of himself. He has given me a sense of unconditional love and the security of knowing he’s always there. Because of him, I’m able to be more in the present moment and can handle life better in real time.”
Immediately following graduation, Les and Scout headed home to Tennessee, where Les lives on a small farm with his wife and chickens. He plans to add fainting goats to the family soon.
“Scout is adjusting very well,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “But I have to say our chickens are not happy about him being here. He is currently sitting at my feet, chewing on a bone Chris and Chip gifted him a few days ago.”
Les recognizes what a gift Scout himself is.
“This veteran just wants to say thank you to all the staff at Southeastern Guide Dogs, as well as Chris (O’Leary) and Chip (Barker) for their time, love and expertise in raising this pup.
“My experience with Southeastern Guide Dogs was better than I could imagine,” he added. “Everyone from the administration, chefs and trainers to the puppy-raisers, volunteers and cleaning staff made all the difference in providing a fantastic atmosphere to make my transition from having no dog to having a service dog much better.
“I am grateful and feel extremely blessed to have Scout in my life. God bless all of you.”
To learn more about Southeastern Guide Dogs, and its service dogs program for veterans, visit www.guidedogs.org/service-dogs.