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Editorâ€™s note: This is Part IV of an occasional series on the Pets and Vets program at Tony La Russaâ€™s Animal Rescue Foundation. The program matches rescue dogs with veterans, who train the animals as their service dogs. FindÂ Part I,Â Part IIÂ and Part III here.
For veterans battling the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, service dogs can become their tether to the world outside of night terrors and fears, the constant companion that gives them a reason to step outside the house and face life.
Their dogs save their lives,Â but the veterans also are saving the dogsâ€™ lives.
Before becoming a service dog, Thor, a 4-year-old pit bull terrier, was part of an illegal dog breeding operation and had to be rescued from a house fire. Layla, a pit-bull mix, was living on the streets of Antioch and suffering from benign tumors on her back, a cracked tooth and an ear infection. She was 100 percent lovable, but her hard-knock looks kept her from getting adopted.Â Katie, a 3-year-old pit bull-Labrador retriever mix, appears to have struggled all on her own with a broken leg, the victim of numerous dog attacks until she was picked up as a stray in Yolo County.
And then there is Wic.
Wicâ€™s story is a hard-luck saga with more twists and turns than Great Americaâ€™s RailBlazer roller coaster.
Wic, like Katie, Thor and Layla, became part of the Pets and Vets service dog training program at Tony La Russaâ€™s Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek, but thatâ€™s not where his story starts.
The lively yellow Lab mix was abandoned on the streets of Beverly Hills, living by his wits and trying to stay away from trouble. He was hanging out at the public library when animal control picked him up. Despite his street days, he was a friendly, happy dog and rescuers were confident heâ€™d quickly be adopted. Then they discovered Wic had some major health problems.
The young dog was suffering from a problem with his knees â€” an issue that was correctable through surgery. But the shelter couldnâ€™t afford to pay for it, and potential adopters werenâ€™t interested in shouldering the financial responsibility, either.
With no takers and more animals coming into the shelter every day, a decision was made to euthanize Wic. He was brought into the room, given a sedative to make his death less stressful, and stretched out on the table. The vet prepared the injection, then put the syringe aside.
She hated the idea of killing an otherwise healthy and friendly dog, so she gave him another exam. One leg wasnâ€™t as bad as believed, and that one hopeful diagnosis was enough to win Wic a last-minute stay. He went back into the kennel and waited for his family to find him.
As Wic continued to languish and with his reprieve about to expire, Elena Bicker, ARF executive director, learned about the dog and his need for a miracle. Bicker was determined to provide it, starting a fund-raising drive to pay for the surgery, which was performed by specialists at a SAGE veterinary center.
While there are many hard-luck animals out there and ARF often gets involved in such cases, there was something special about Wic that spoke to Bicker and made her go the extra mile for him, coordinating his care and transportation from Southern California to Walnut Creek.
â€śI love that dog,â€ť Bicker says. â€śPeople could benefit from his resilience.â€ť
With Wic now in recovery, volunteers wanted to make sure he didnâ€™t end up back on death row. A volunteer who had been fostering Wic drove the dog 400 miles north to ARFâ€™s shelter, where he soon found what heâ€™d never had â€” a home of his own.
The man who adopted Wic lived in San Francisco but traveled often between the city and Colorado for work. He wanted a copilot for his RV journeys, and Wic took to traveling like he was born to it.
All was great for Wic and his new owner for about a year. Then the man died suddenly and his family couldnâ€™t keep Wic. The dog found himself once again waiting for a permanent home.
By this time, ARF had its service dog program up and running. Wic passed his entrance exam into the program with flying colors and was matched with a veteran. The two bonded quickly and Wic took well to training. Inside that resilient dog was an animal that wanted nothing more than to be helpful and to be loved.
As is the case with most things involving Wic, there was yet another twist in his story. He recently developed a painful, recurring eye condition that disqualified him from service, so now he will enjoy his retirement as a pet instead of a service dog and ARF willÂ work to match his veteran with a new service dog.
â€śWic is the definition of resilience and recovers quickly from lifeâ€™s difficulties,â€ť Bicker says.â€ťHe is a sweet boy but his journey has been rocky, from being abandoned at a library to laying on a shelter floor for four months due to medical needs, to his travel buddyâ€™s death. Many of our animals may have a rough start in life, but ARF is here, for him and others committed to finding a home filled with happiness.â€ť
While potential service dogs have to get used to their veterans and the demands of being in service, theÂ veterans also have to adjust to the dogs.
Katie, who has completed service dog training, wasnâ€™t Marine veteran David Fullerâ€™s first choice. Fuller wanted a German shepherd and was fearful of pit bulls and mixes.
A chance meeting with Katie won him over and he agreed to take her on a trial basis, still not certain, he said, that she wouldnâ€™t â€śdecide to bite my face off or injure my two daughters in the middle of the night.â€ť
His fears have proved unfounded as Katie immediately became part of the family, playing with Fullerâ€™s daughters when not on duty. Fuller says he and Katie have some things in common, mostly the tough times theyâ€™ve both been through and how theyâ€™ve come out on the other side, scarred but alive.
The other dogs in this story â€” Layla and Thor â€” all remain in the program, working every day to help their vets. Layla is the service dog of Rudy Dubord of Oakdale, and Thor is withÂ Johnny Delashaw of Brentwood. They are on track to graduate from training in October.