My wife and I fostered dogs in rescue for 10+ years. We have had more foster dogs through our house than I can count. We said goodbye to almost (with the exception of 1 foster fail who refused to move out) all of them as we dutifully found them a perfect home to live out the rest of their years. Rescue is hard work! It requires a lot of dog behavioral knowledge, grit, some light veterinary medical knowledge (apparently, how to treat gunshot wounds on a dog…) and above all it is emotionally draining. We decided we needed a break from the daily rescue grind to concentrate on our family, which included my mental health.
It wasn’t more than a week before we knew we needed to give back to our community in other ways, and my wife had signed us up for a volunteer orientation at Puppy Jake. Between my wife’s love of dogs (and I guess mine, by proxy) and my veteran status, we figured it would be a good fit. At the time, we had been locked in an 8-year battle with the VA to get earned disability benefits for myself, and were well aware of the shortfall in assistance for veterans. As soon as we connected with the Puppy Jake Foundation, helping veterans became a passion project for our family.
Within a few days of that orientation, we were picking up an adorable puppy to foster from Puppy Jake named Kernel (despite my telling my wife we wouldn’t do puppies, apparently, she agreed to one…) with plans to train the dog for the full 2 years for another disabled veteran. I, personally, knew the struggle of a disabled veteran and this was how I would help. We learned a lot throughout the service dog training process. Throughout our time training Kernel, I don’t know how many times my wife and I have said the phrase (when asked how we will give him up) “We love him very much, but he has a greater purpose, and he’s not ours, so we will send him on his way.”
In the summer of 2021, I was meeting with one of my VA mental health providers (with Kernel training by my side) and he asked how my anxiety and PTSD were while I had been training Kernel. I said they were much better and quickly moved along. He stopped me and asked if I had ever considered applying for a service dog myself, and honestly, I hadn’t. In the military, you really learn to push through any struggles, especially mental health wise, and maybe I hadn’t fully admitted to myself the extent of my trauma.
For many years, my wife has gone pretty much everywhere with me. I struggled in crowds, and in public, and when I was employed, at work. She kept me grounded and appropriate. Kept my focus away from whatever I was struggling with. After many long conversations with my wife we decided I’d apply for a service dog for myself. Assuming it would be years and we would train several more dogs before I was awarded a dog myself.
In October 2021, we got the news from the Puppy Jake Board that Kernel, the dog I had spent 2 years training, would be MY service dog. We were elated. Kernel and I were already extremely bonded and he had already helped me so much.
Since having Kernel I am more confident, less anxious, and functioning at a higher level than I have been in years. It has also given my wife her freedom back as well. I can go to the gym, pick up groceries, out to dinner, and even to a movie theater without the debilitating anxiety that I had previously. I’ve slept better with Kernel by my side than I have in years, and he has not only changed my life, given me my freedom back, but also changed the lives around me.
I know the mission of the Puppy Jake Foundation is to help military veterans through the assistance of well bred, socialized and professionally trained service dogs but never did I understand how it could change MY life. I went into volunteering with the Puppy Jake Foundation knowing I wanted to help my fellow veterans, but ended up learning first hand how having a service dog, as a military veteran, can truly change a life for the better.
Zac Fox is a volunteer for the Puppy Jake Foundation.