A wayward street dog learns how to be a family pet while helping a Navy veteran cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Military life on the move
Steve has spent a lifetime not spending too long in one place. His father served in the Air Force and then the Army, where he made officer. Home always had a temporary feeling.
“We’d been to several places and moved from place to place,” Steve says, “because that’s how the military is.”
The military lifestyle and commitment to country ran deep in Steve’s veins. So after graduating high school he enlisted in the Navy. At first he served as a Boatswain’s mate, one of the oldest jobs in the Navy.
Steve ultimately trained and served the remainder of his long career as a cook. He served on five different Naval ships over the course of his 20 year Naval career, including the Midway, and deployed overseas a few times as well. He recalls one long tour of sea duty at the time of the Iran hostage crisis, during the Carter administration.
The ship was at the ready for a rescue mission that never materialized.
“President Carter was telling us that we were waiting for orders from him to invade and go get the hostages,” he says, “but it never happened.”
However, Steve’s most memorable deployment was when his ship was involved in a collision at sea with an equally large merchant marine ship. He was frightened for his life, like many of his fellow sailors on that fateful day.
“We could have exploded, but we didn’t.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
In 1997, Steve separated from service after 20 years in the Navy. Like many veterans he struggled to make the transition from military to civilian life. He felt unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead of him.
“Yeah. It was a little different,” he says. “But, then again, it was a lot different because I’ve spent 39 years either a dependent on the military – so which is very similar – though it was completely different getting out of the military. So I didn’t have the skills I thought I did.”
In addition, Steve was coping with PTSD from his military service. For many veterans it is a lifelong struggle.
But Steve is nothing if not resilient. He works hard to make a life for himself and his family – and that family usually includes a dog.
Love at first sight
Steve and his wife Mary had a Springer Spaniel who passed away suddenly in the hallway of their home. They were looking for another dog of a similar breed, but were not having any luck.
Eventually the couple decided to look for a companion dog at their local animal shelter, Virginia Beach SPCA.
During his visit Steve learned about our partnership with the shelter and the benefits if he was approved into our program prior to adopting.
Although the Navy veteran was looking for a Spaniel he was instantly smitten with a then three year-old Labrador mix named Agnes. She was a street dog who had been rescued in Puerto Rico and transported to Virginia in the hopes of finding her a home.
While Steve realizes that he could have adopted Agnes without our support, he enjoys the sense of belonging in being a member of our program. And just as the retired veteran’s short search for a companion pet was over, he assured Agnes that her journey to a forever home was almost over as well.
“And I told Agnes, ‘I’ll be back for you tomorrow,’” he recalls. “Sure enough, I brought my wife and sure enough, we took her home.”
Agnes is part Labrador and part Beagle; not at all the kind of dog that Steve had envisioned adopting. While the Navy veteran is unsure about what drew him to Agnes in the first place he believes they chose one another.
“She kind of picked us, too, and we picked her. It was mutual.”
From Puerto Rico, with love
Shelter dogs and cats often come with unknown histories. They are typically surrendered, abandoned, or found as strays.
Steve was told that Agnes was a street dog in Puerto Rico prior to her rescue.
Many aspects of Agnes’ behavior seem consistent with a dog who had no real home or socialization prior to her adoption. Steve did some research to learn about the kind of life she may have had so that he could be best prepared to help her adapt.
“A lot of times, they don’t have an owner,” he shares. “They run in packs, and they get bad once in a while, and they find food in trash and live under porches. That’s kind of life she had. And it took her a while to realize that she can come in the house.”
Agnes is still cautious and leery, but is slowly breaking her old habits. She is very loving and has become more sociable. And she is learning that she does not need to stay on the porch; the house is her home.
The former street dog has proven that she is worth Steve’s time, patience, and love. One thing that has not changed, however, is Agnes’ fear of children.
At one point Steve and Mary a woman and her young son as their houseguests. When the child ran through the room where Agnes was resting she became very agitated. A subsequent event with one of Steve’s small grandchildren made it clear that Agnes could not be around young kids.
“Adults, she has no problem with,” he says. “Any adult, she’s very loving.”
It is not unusual for dogs to be afraid of small children if they have not been raised with them or had a bad experience. Positive reinforcement training can help, but sometimes the best course of action is avoidance.
Street dog learns what it means to be home
At times Steve has questioned his decision to adopt Agnes. But the street dog has a lot of beauty and charm; both have helped deter Steve from giving up on her altogether.
“So we’re very understanding, and we have a lot of patience with her,” Steve says. “And she’s a beautiful dog.”
This understanding and patience has come in handy in dealing with another behavior issue: chewing the furniture. The Puerto Rican street dog destroyed a $300 leather hot tub cover as well as a couch cushion.
“I can’t afford another $300 cover for her to do it again,” Steve laments. “The only choice I had was getting rid of the hot tub.”
Agnes soon started to shred other household furniture.
So Steve cooked up a plan after Agnes destroyed a couch cushion in the family den. The Navy veteran covered half the couch with a mat that has a rough surface and the other half with a dog bed, hoping she would stick to her half of the couch.
Agnes was so put off that she left the room altogether.
Patience pays off
Yet despite some setbacks the Navy veteran’s hard work and dedication are paying off. Agnes has started to listen to Steve and the pair have developed an understanding of one another. He describes her as smart and easily trainable, a common trait among street dogs.
It seems that Agnes appreciates Steve’s tough love and discipline as well. She is learning boundaries, starting to understand that she has a home, and is happy to be with her people.
“I can tell by kind of when she is excited about seeing us and she’ll follow us. And when we go outside,” he explains, “she tap dances and kind of raises up on her back legs briefly and then kind of tap dances. And then we go over and pet her and she’s fine.”
The street dog is a work in progress. But Steve admits that early in their relationship the prospect of surrendering her crossed his mind. However, he quickly changed course once he realized that she was simply never trained and likely never had a real home.
“So it’s just her upbringing, and she’s trying to get used to us. A lot of people would have just sent her back and kicked her out the door, but we haven’t done that,” he declares. “And we won’t.”
Pets for veterans
The Navy veteran jokes about how much money Agnes has cost the family and that perhaps it is time she earns her keep.
“I tell my dog all the time, ‘You’re going to have to get a job one of these days,'” he says.
Nevertheless, Steve believes that companion pets can be good for many veterans. He suggests finding out as much as you can about a pet before you adopt, if the shelter has that information.
“I’d tell them to try to ask the dog’s history so you can understand where they’re coming from and what kind of life they had,” he says. “So if you need patience and it would give you an idea how they’re going to be when you take them home. If you want to accept that challenge.”
Steve has not only made an impact on Agnes, but Agnes has done the same for Steve.
The Navy veteran still lives with PTSD from his military service. His wayward street dog comforts him during times of stress along with Stu – a Springer Spaniel whom Steve adopted after finding Agnes.
“Yeah, she’s helped me in adjusting,” he says. “Yeah, every dog I’ve had has been different. Every dog. I’ve learned from every dog I’ve had and they’re the best teachers, even though you think you’re smart. Well, just like children, you think you’re the parent but sometimes you’re learning. So that dog is the same way.”
Even with all of her challenges, Steve would not give up his street dog for the world. Agnes may be difficult at times, but she fills an important role in Steve’s life. Since adopting her he confides to having become more lenient and patient.
“We kind of need each other,” he shares. “Well, she has problems and we’re trying to help her with them. And we needed a companion like we’re used to, and she more than filled that.”