Dog of the Day
Four Paws, Two Feet - One Team Navigating Life Together
by Cindie Farley
When Jeremiah Gaches met Rocky, he knew immediately that this was the dog. His dog. A nine-month-old German Shepherd/Husky mix, Rocky was a big goofball with no training at all. But Jeremiah saw past that to something far more important: a dog with a lot of heart that connected with his own. It was December 24, 2010, and each one ended up being the best possible Christmas gift for the other.
Jeremiah had served three years in the U.S. Army and was deployed overseas all three years. He returned home to Lodi, California with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both severely affecting his ability to lead a normal life and leaving him feeling “numb.”
Rocky had been in a Silicon Valley shelter and his time was running out. He was on the list to be euthanized.
Fate brought the two of them together when Jeremiah picked up a flyer for a service dog program called “Operation Freedoms Paws.” He had contacted numerous other programs and had become discouraged by not having found a companion. Within two weeks, however, Operation Freedoms Paws (OFP) was able to find Jeremiah’s perfect match, Rocky.
OFP’s mission is to empower veterans and others with disabilities to live a quality life by teaching them to train the dog they’ve been matched with, then certifying them together as a service dog team. By rescuing shelter dogs for their program, OFP also does the greatest service for canines who are themselves at risk.
Rocky had an immediate effect on Jeremiah; he no longer felt numb and the responsibility of having a service dog gave him a reason to get up in the morning. Rocky was a very fast learner and within the first month, Jeremiah saw a huge change in the “goofball’s” behavior. Within six months he and Rocky were certified as a service dog team. He feels that in a way they “saved each other,” which is a big part of their bond. It’s also important to him that people know this—that a dog like Rocky who was on the list be euthanized after being overlooked so many times as a pet, has become an invaluable service dog.
One of the first commands Jeremiah learned was for Rocky to get ON THE BED with him. In addition to strengthening the bond between them, this taught Rocky the important task of waking Jeremiah right away if he were to have a nightmare or a seizure, common symptoms of PTSD and TBI.
Rocky also learned two other commands critical in helping Jeremiah cope with anxiety when out in public. He will “watch out back” so Jeremiah doesn’t have to himself, something veterans are usually hypervigilant about doing. He will also “block in front” whenever Jeremiah feels the slightest discomfort in a social interaction. These may seem like minor situations, but they are major ones to Jeremiah or anyone with PTSD, and having a companion service dog like Rocky there for support makes all the difference in the world. OFP dogs even sense when their owner is having a flashback and will nudge them to bring them back to the present moment. The dog will sit close or on the lap when their companion needs to be calmed by focusing on the dog’s heartbeat and breathing. The dog’s constant presence alone offers tremendous security and comfort. As Jeremiah says, having Rocky has helped him by just being a best friend when he needs one.
OFP service dogs can be trained to meet individual needs. They will turn on lights, search the house, and fetch medication. Rocky is so attuned to Jeremiah, that he will “act up” in some way to get Jeremiah’s attention (being disobedient, pawing, nudging) when he forgets his medication. Jeremiah says the hardest part is for the person to be as tuned in to the dog as the dog is to the person.
Being able to do the training himself allowed Jeremiah to see Rocky’s progress, and he says that this motivated him to keep going. Rocky has made such a difference in Jeremiah’s life, that he himself has become a mentor and trainer in the Operation Freedoms Paws program. Founder Mary Cortani recalled that Jeremiah couldn’t even make eye contact with her during the interview process, so his is a huge success story. And he couldn’t have done it without Rocky.
Operation Freedoms Paws was founded in 2010 by Mary Cortani, herself a U.S. Army Veteran with a love of dogs and an understanding of how traumatic events result in a range of disabilities for veterans returning to civilian life. She is also a certified Army Master Instructor of Canine Education, as well as an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen© Evaluator. Learn more at operationfreedomspaws.org.
Cindie Farley is a freelance writer, copyeditor and proofreader. She lives in Pacific Grove with her daughter, Morgan Daily, and their dog Gus, who is a freelance gull and crow herder. Her email is address is firstname.lastname@example.org.