Paws of War provides services dogs for veterans and first responders to overcome struggles.
Thump, thump, thump. Looking down, there is an eager and anxious dog nudging your belly to grab your attention. However, the attention she wants is not to love on her, but rather to realize your life could be on the line.
For Port Orange resident veteran Eddie Johnston, his loving support dog Roxy duals as a health alert and comfort to help move forward from his service time.
“We’ve both had some rough times in our life and we’ve made it through it,” Johnston states.
Johnston first enlisted in the military in 1986. He served in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War and served 10 years for the National Guard, ending in 2005. The option of a service dog was not on Johnston’s mind, despite battling medical issues along with his PTSD symptoms.
His son, Gary Johnston, served eight years in the military from which he developed PTSD. He recognized his father’s need for a service dog through his involvement as a spokesperson for Paws of War, a non-profit that supports veterans and emergency responders by supplying free service dogs. After Johnston suffered a heart attack in August 2018, his son and Lauren Driscoll, Paws of War Florida chapter director, deemed it about time he found a dog.
“I didn’t want another dog until I met her,” Johnston admitted.
Paws of War attempts to best match a dog to your personality. “Sadie” was found in a Jacksonville shelter after she had been puppied-out, teeth filed down, and abused by a dog-fighting community. She was transferred to Flagler Humane Society where, after only two days, she met Johnston. And she was hyper, according to Johnston.
“That Sadie’s not going to work. She looks like a Roxy.” Johnston proclaimed.
For eight months now, he has worked with Roxy every day for at least a couple hours to make her calmer and more accustomed to the world. A service dog is a lot work, Johnston explained. Johnston frequently takes Roxy to the Dunlawton Bridge where he likes to fish, but also where Roxy is learning to overcome her biggest fear. The loud tunnel noise of cars in the bathroom under the bridge make Roxy want to run. Johnston speculates that it reminds her of the kennel. However, just as she helps Johnston overcome his struggles, Johnston works with her frequently to get used to situations that may trigger her.
Weekly on Wednesdays, Paws of War dog recipients gather to train their animals at the Agricultural Museum in Palm Coast. The ranch setting provides opportunities that extend beyond simple ‘sit, stay, and crossing’ according to Johnston. The dogs learn to handle everyday occurrences such as loud noises, big and abrupt actions, and temptations through exercises.
During one session, Johnston and Roxy were required to ride a loud and bumpy trailer pulled by a tractor to make them more comfortable in motion activities with their owner. Roxy whined and wiggled before getting on. However, unlike other dogs were agitated or frightened, she was only anxious to board and ride, Johnston explained. Not all dogs are as well adjusted as Roxy, though Johnston must remind her to focus when her three-year old instincts kick in, especially when she wants to chase after birds.
“She’s really calm, ninety percent of the time.” Johnston explained. “She’s still a dog. She’s a love bug.”
Each service dog is required to wear a vest with the title “Service Dog” on it. When the vest is on, Roxy knows it is work time. When the vest comes off, Roxy’s calm demeanor switches to loveable, wet kisses that are ready to greet you. However, these warm licks also serve to alert Johnston when he may be in a medical emergency or is overwhelmed by emotions.
Johnston works with Roxy to help her identify if he is having another heart attack. He places a bag over his chest that contains enzymes on a cloth that are present during a heart attack. Roxy reacts by nudging his belly and licking his face.
“When I start getting wound up, she gets wound up. So she takes my mind off of me and onto her.” Johnston explain.
Roxy has not only become a comfort for Johnston but also for his family who knows he is safer with her. Johnston’s wife, Susan Johnston, explained that Roxy keeps him active and is something positive to focus on.
“It is his service dog but it feels like she’s the whole family’s service dog.” Susan Johnston said.
She is comforted knowing that Roxy goes with Johnston everywhere. Roxy joins him to the store, under the table in restaurants, and trails him all over the house, even to the shower. She also tracks his every move so, if something seems off, she is there to check on him.
The biggest impact of owning a service dog and being a part of the service dog community is the companionship of knowing that everyone has been through the same experiences, according to Johnston.
If you are interested in learning more, would like to apply for a dog, or to donate, you may visit www.pawsofwar.org.