Brandon and Max are in basic training. At their ‚Äúbase,‚ÄĚ they run through drills and demonstrate discipline in following the routine. Brandon knows his buddy has his back ‚ÄĒ even if that buddy is walking their journey on four legs.
Brandon Gray is an Army veteran born in Houston and raised in the Sugar Land/Richmond area. Maximus is a 3-year-old German Shepherd-Siberian Husky mix born and raised in California. The mission: to provide each other with stability and companionship ‚ÄĒ and to ease Gray‚Äôs post-traumatic stress.
‚ÄúHe allows me to relax enough to get out of the house,‚ÄĚ Gray says. ‚ÄúWhen he‚Äôs out with me, it‚Äôs even better.‚ÄĚ
Their partnership ‚ÄĒ and more than 100 others like it ‚ÄĒ comes courtesy of retired Major League Baseball player and manager Tony La Russa and his Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Animal Rescue Foundation. ARF‚Äôs Pets and Vets program matches rescue dogs with veterans experiencing PTSD and other challenges, then guides veterans through 10 months of training their dogs themselves to become skilled service animals.
The donation goal is $500,000. So far, the campaign has raised $163,000 from sales of Complete Adult with Chicken and $36,000 from video shares. Find the videos at DogChow.com/Service.
Did you know?
In 1926, Purina‚Äôs founder, William Danforth, named the company‚Äôs first dog food ‚ÄúDog Chow‚ÄĚ as a nod to the chow lines that fed American service members during World War I.
Now Purina Dog Chow is working to help ARF grow ‚ÄĒ and anyone can pitch in.
September is National Service Dog Month, and through Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the brand will make a donation to ARF with every purchase of specially marked bags of food, up to $250,000. Additionally, Dog Chow partnered with Buzzfeed on compelling stories of how ARF is ‚Äúturning a leash into a lifeline‚ÄĚ for both rescue dogs and veterans. For each unique video share, Dog Chow donates $1 to ARF, up to another $250,000.
‚ÄúDog Chow has a long history of helping our military,‚ÄĚ company representative Emily Goldkamp says.
Merritt Rollins, ARF‚Äôs Pets and Vets program manager, says other programs can take two to five years to pair a veteran with a dog that can cost $10,000 or more. (Closer to home, the Fort Bend Veterans Companion Dog Program, the Austin Dog Alliance‚Äôs Hounds for Heroes and DFW Canines for Veterans offer similar veteran-training programs that provide the dog).
ARF generally takes four to six months to get an emotional support pet to a veteran, who then starts training at ARF‚Äôs facility. The approach not only strengthens bonds between human and canine but establishes a sense of community among veterans in the classes, according to Rollins.
‚ÄúThey start to feel a bit of an identity again,‚ÄĚ she says.
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Rigorous temperament testing goes into selecting appropriate rescue dogs, Rollins adds. Ideally, ‚Äúthey are middle of the road‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ not super-excitable but want to play. And they are ‚Äúbomb proof‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ that is, not easily startled.
Maximus fits the bill. At 108 pounds, he‚Äôs physically a good match for the 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound Gray. Despite his size, the dog is ‚Äúbest friends‚ÄĚ with Gray‚Äôs 7-year-old son.
As a cavalry scout with the 82nd Airborne Division during tours in Iraq in 2007 and ‚Äô09, Gray jumped out of C-130s and other planes and performed reconnaissance on enemy-troop movements: ‚ÄúIt was boots on the ground, on the front lines looking for high-value targets,‚ÄĚ he recalls. Though his second deployment included humanitarian work, such as digging water wells, ‚Äúours was one of the last units to get in a major conflict ‚Ä¶ in Baghdad.‚ÄĚ
Gray saw children blown up. He felt ‚Äúthe stressors of war. The stressors of death all around you. Hopelessness. Helplessness. Not being able to help the citizens of Iraq.‚ÄĚ
In addition to PTSD, the 35-year-old copes with knee, back, shoulder and neck injuries, insomnia and the memory loss and trouble concentrating that come from traumatic brain injury. He says it takes him six hours to read 20 pages and that it‚Äôs hard to retain what he just read.
But thanks to ARF, Gray manages better these days. The nonprofit covers the cost of Maximus‚Äô food, veterinarian bills for his allergies and more.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôre making it very easy to focus on getting better,‚ÄĚ says Gray, who now lives in Martinez, Calif., and is pursuing a master‚Äôs degree from John F. Kennedy University in performance psychology.
At last week‚Äôs ARF training, Max, as Gray calls him, was learning to notice Gray‚Äôs anxiety. ‚ÄúWhen my leg is shaking, he gets on my lap to get me out of the cycle.‚ÄĚ
Gray, who didn‚Äôt grow up with dogs, says Max can read him: ‚ÄúHe‚Äôll lick me or make me play. We‚Äôre in tune with each other.‚ÄĚ
Max definitely shows his husky side: ‚ÄúHe talks all the time. ‚Ä¶ He‚Äôs super-smart and silly,‚ÄĚ Gray says with a chuckle.
Without him, ‚Äúit wouldn‚Äôt be good. He calms me down. I look forward to seeing my dog.‚ÄĚ