COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —
While service members and veterans competed in sports ranging from track and field to wheelchair basketball this week at the U.S. Air Force Academy here in the 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games, their companions stole the spotlight – the service dogs of the games.
Stats: Belgian Malinois, 2.5 years old.
Owner: Air Force Staff Sgt. Brent Young, 96th Security Forces Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, served for almost 20 years.
Injury: Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury from two improvised explosive blasts and training combatives over the years and deployment to Iraq, 2004-2005.
Sports: Archery, shooting, wheelchair basketball.
Personality: “She’s a big sweetheart to me and to people she cares about. She’s very protective and very vigilant,” Young said. “She’s always paying attention to what’s going around and gives me a break from having to do it. At wheelchair basketball, we were able to pick our numbers, and I picked number 6 because she’s always got my six.”
Training and purpose: “When I start moving around, grinding my teeth and having nightmares, she’ll actually wake me up,” he said. “She’ll stand up on my bed and pounce on me until I wake up. I tell her, ‘Good girl.’ She catches it before the adrenaline dump happens. She breaks the cycle before I get agitated so I can get back to normal.”
Bonding: Young was originally training with a golden retriever when his grandfather passed away last year. His doctor didn’t want him to fly home alone, so his friend lent him Cairo, who was going through police training with her. “I was gone for 10 days and in that amount of time, when we came back, my friend said, ‘Sometimes, the dog picks the person.’ We just bonded,” he said. “We’ve been inseparable since.”
Importance of the dogs at the games: “I wouldn’t have been able to get through the first part of the opening ceremony without her. I was out of there once the concert started,” he said. “Just getting up to that part, the concert, I was pretty impressed I was able to, but I couldn’t have done it without her. Service dogs are absolutely necessary for people like me. She’s basically given me a life again outside of my house or work.”
Stats: American Eskimo Spitz, 2 years old in September.
Owners: U.S. Special Operations Command Navy Lt. Patrick Ferguson, Naval Special Warfare Group 2, Little Creek, Virginia, and his fiancee, Debra Esterces. She never served, but has post-traumatic stress. He’s served for 21 years.
Injury: Ferguson — Post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, inner ear issues, medical issues from years of deployments to Iraq.
Sports: Archery, cycling, track and field, indoor rowing, powerlifting, shooting, swimming.
Personality: “He’s energetic, attuned to his person, high energy. He has a very funny personality,” Esterces said. “He winks. He smiles. He puts a paw on you when you’re stressed out. He has an amazing personality.”
Training and purpose: “When I start getting really anxious or if he starts going down the rabbit hole, Clyde just walks up, puts his chin on his knee, and it’s an instant shift. He’s really good,” Esterces said.
“I have tremendous social anxieties, various trust issues with people in general. Clyde makes me engage with people when I don’t want to,” Ferguson said. “It’s just been so liberating. People want to engage here with shared experiences, and then when we’re at the mall, he’s a cute, fluffy white dog. It’s like I have a renewed sense of hope in humanity because of how I see people react to him. I think people are relatively good in nature, but I’ve seen the worst in nature.”
Esterces said having grown up with German shepherds, she chose his breed on purpose so it would force her to socialize more. “I worked with my doctors, and then it just snowballed from there,” she said laughing because Clyde looks like a snowball. “It forces me to socialize.”
Ferguson said he can relax because Clyde stays alert and will have his back. “I love it. I’m more trusting where we sit at a restaurant. He’s got my back. He vibes off people. He’s so intelligent,” he said proudly. “I wish he had a voice box like that movie, ‘Up.’”
Esterces said Clyde has been instrumental in getting her out of the house, exercising, socializing, losing weight and giving her a healthier mental health.
Importance of dogs at games: “It’s amazing to see so many of them, and you don’t feel isolated,” Ferguson said.
“Clyde’s an icebreaker,” Esterces said. “He was in a foul mood and couldn’t get out of his head, but then an athlete and his wife started talking to us about Clyde and both of them let their guards down. By the end, they were exchanging numbers and high-fiving each other.”
Clyde’s also become so popular at the games that he sat in Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein’s lap and took a photo with the women’s swim team. “These big tough [Special Operations Command] guys, they’re all just like, ‘Look at the white fluffy dog,’” Esterces said in a baby voice. “People can’t walk by without smiling at him. I’ve had people chase me down to get a picture with him. He has his own Instagram page.”
“We’re second class to him; he’s here all week. Kids will yell, ‘He’s so fluffy!’” Ferguson said, laughing.
Both of them said they’re determined to get the Australian team to give Clyde the team mascot, the blow up kangaroo, or maybe the baby version, the small joey.
“Hey, Clyde needs a toy,” Ferguson said smiling.
Stats: Chocolate lab, 4 years old.
Owners: Retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Rich Curtis and his wife, Kimberly. He’s served for 28 years.
Injury: Traumatic brain injury and brain tumor in 2010; no vestibular or acoustic nerve on the left side.
Sports: Cycling, swimming, wheelchair basketball.
Personality: Curtis said Cob has an old man’s soul. “He’s 4, going on 40,” he said. He also joked that he’s a stoner dog, born in Cocoa Beach. “He can literally fall asleep leaning up against the wall, just sitting, sitting straight up on the airplane. He fell asleep on the bus last night sitting up. I keep waiting to hear, ‘Dude, you got a brownie or some Cheetos?’ He’s got that gentle soul. He’s always been calm.”
Training and purpose: Cob works as a medical alert dog for sensory alert overload purposes and path guidance. Rich said he tends to drift. Cob will also help with mental health as well. “Cob will bump his leg or sit up suddenly. It helps me become more aware when he’s going through different things. It’s very calming,” Kimberly said. “When they travel together, I know he’s not by himself, so it makes me feel better.”
Importance of the dogs at the games: Rich said having Cob at the games and in his life has been indescribable. “There are times already here where teammates have reminded me, ‘Just love Cob right now,” he said. “He’ll bump. He’ll stand up and get in my face or sit up. He tells me, ‘You’re not good. I need you to focus.’ I hope someday that trainers are nationally certified so that if there’s ever an issue, they can check the accreditation of the trainer, not the dog, and continue to let us have anonymity through [the Americans With Disabilities Act]. Having service dogs, the importance, there’s just no word, no metric.”
Stats: Half lab, half golden retriever, 4 years old in July.
Owner: Medically retired Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Beth Grauer, military police for 15 years.
Injury: Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury from deployments to Iraq in 2005 and 2007.
Sports: Track and swimming.
Personality: “Some days, we butt heads because we’re both stubborn, but for the most part, she’s a social butterfly, and I’m not,” Grauer said. “She was originally supposed to be a guide dog, but she was too hyper.”
Training and purpose: “She’ll wake me up from nightmares. She’ll block and part crowds,” Grauer said. “I’ve also had to use her for balance, so she’ll brace for me when I get up so she’ll steady me.”
Bonding and training: Grauer said it took four months, four times a week working with her to pass an access test before taking her home to see if the bond was still present at home in that environment. They continued training from there to pass the certification test and continue training to maintain certification.
Importance of the dogs at the games: “She’s definitely made me live life again,” she said. “It’s very important to have her here, with all of the commotion and the noise. The noise hurts her too. The camaraderie here has been good for her. She loves dogs. She’s a social butterfly. It’s just me and my two cats in Pueblo. When I take her vest and [leash] off, she goes nuts.”
Advice for people who approach service dogs: “Ask before petting and know that from day to day, you don’t know how the handler is,” Gauer said. “If they’re firm with you, it’s not because they want to be a jerk. It’s just because they’re having a hard day and the dog needs to work harder.”
Stats: Chocolate lab, pit bull mix; 1.7 years old.
Owner: Medically retired Air Force Senior Airman Rafael Morfinenciso, medical administration for seven years.
Injury: Post-traumatic stress, back trauma from active shooter incident in 2016.
Sports: Archery, cycling, track and field, indoor rowing, powerlifting, shooting, swimming.
Personality: “He’s very outgoing; he loves people. He loves making sure everybody’s OK. Sometimes he acts like he’s in charge, but little does he know that’s not going to fly with me,” Morfinenciso said.
Training and purpose: “He wakes me up when I have night terrors,” he said. “He’s really good at smelling right before I get emotional and cry. He’s always engaging me. When I get angry, even though I feel a little mean and try to push him away when I’m a little upset, he tries to do his best and calm me down.”
Importance of dogs at the games: “He’s been awesome,” Morfinenciso said. “Just from the anxiety of all the people sometimes and all the events and the yelling and screaming. Having him there always stimulating me, right there, is pretty much everything for me.”
Importance of service dogs: “I had to start taking him out, and it made me have to get out,” he said, scratching Zeus’ ears. “I didn’t want to, honestly. He’s so social and engages people. It makes me more prone to engage people now. He’s a big reason why I’m able to get out and do more things. I know a lot of people that if they had had a service dog, they probably wouldn’t have committed suicide. Having a best friend who’s always there for you, no matter what, it’s fundamental, and more people should have service dogs. There’s usually a two-year waiting list, that’s how much we need them.”
Stats: Golden retriever, 3 years old.
Owner: Medically retired Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Abbie Johnson, musician for four years.
Injury: Service-connected post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
Sports: Track, cycling, indoor rowing, swimming.
Training and purpose: “He wakes me up if I’m having night terrors. He looks for if I’m shaking or grinding my teeth,” Johnson said.
Bonding: “He’s been with me every step of the way. I got him shortly after everything happened, and I started my recovery journey,” she said. “He was fully certified by the time he was a year old. He’s just been a great support. He’s seen me through the worst, and he’s seen me through the best, too.”
Importance of dogs at games: “It helps me relax more and be myself. I know I won’t be judged here for having a service dog because I look young and fit,” Johnson said. “We’re family here.”
Advice for the public: “My life has changed so much for the better since I’ve had him. Even though you may not visibly see what we’re going through, we still need tem just as much as anybody else,” she said.
Dogs supporting other teams: Lt. Allison Laker, a naval warfare officer in the Canadian navy stationed in Ottawa, has served 12 years. She has post-traumatic stress and a service dog she left at home. She’s been visiting the academy’s horses and the service dogs here at the games.
“I’ve been all over the dogs everywhere,” she said. “There’s more pictures of me and dogs than pictures of me doing a sport. They’re great.”
Hillary Conway, the United Kingdom team’s swim coach, said a woman from her team suffered an anxiety attack during a concert at the games. ”One of the guys with a [service] dog came straight over outside with his dog and really helped her,” she said.“We shared a shirt with him. Everyone has been really supportive. The camaraderie has been amazing.”
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)