A shelter dog proved an unlikely hero to an Army family and their autistic son, giving both boy and dog a second chance and bringing many blessings to everyone in the household.
Globe-trotting military family loses one of their own
Joe is assigned to the U.S. Special Operations Command out of MacDill Air Force Base. Since 1989, he has served in the United States Army and traveled the world with his wife, Stephanie, their two sons, Chance and Cole, and the family’s Siberian Husky, Abby. The dog was part of every Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, traveling to Wiesbaden and Heidelberg, Germany; Montgomery, Alabama; Fayetteville, North Carolina and Tampa, Florida, just to name a few.
Representing the United States abroad as a military family is a highlight of Joe’s career. Both of his sons were born in Germany, in the very same Wiesbaden hospital.
“I remember my youngest son actually speaking Dutch when he attended his local preschool while we lived in the Netherlands,” Joe shares, “but definitely not the least memorable is being able to serve with great men and women in the U.S. military while abroad, especially during deployments to war.”
Frequent moves to far flung places is a fact of life for this military veteran and his family.
“I am a Lieutenant Colonel and have served in the U.S. Army for over 17 years,” Joe says. “As all military families anticipate moving on a regular basis we are posturing for our next PCS move next summer to the “Big Island” – Hawaii – which we are all very excited about.”
Sadly, this next move will not include Abby; the eight year-old dog passed away. Being such an intricate part of their military family, it caused great sadness when she died.
“Our oldest son, Chance, is autistic and did not ever seem to have a relationship or bond with Abby,” Joe recalls. “When she passed both our boys were devastated, but Chance surprised my wife and I because he was so adamant on how he missed her and continually asked if we were ever going to get another dog.”
Adopting another dog was not something Joe was prepared for, however. He had been the main caregiver for Abby and, as a dog lover, the death of his companion hit him hard.
“I fought it as long as I could,” Joe remembers. “After some long discussions with my wife we decided to look for a dog that could be a service dog for our autistic son, Chance. With him entering middle school and teenage hormones kicking in his anxiety and fits were on the rise, and we were looking for ways to channel him to keep calm and control his frustrations.”
Joe took a trip to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, a Pets for Patriots adoption and veterinary partner, to look at the available dogs. There he learned about our mission to connect at-risk shelter pets with military veterans, improving their emotional, mental and physical well-being – and, in this case – those of their family members as well.
“I had no idea that Pets for Patriots existed,” Joe confesses. “After telling the folks at the humane society why I was looking to adopt a dog they immediately helped me with some the dogs that were there and then told me about the program.”
The Army veteran qualified for Pets for Patriots’ membership and after several visits to the shelter his two boys spotted Rocky, a then two year-old black Shepherd mix with white socks.
“It was all over at that point,” Joe remembers, but with a confession. “To be honest I did not want Rocky. I may not have been ready for a new dog quite yet, but also, I was going to be the one to train him and I did not know what Rocky was mixed with.”
Joe wanted to be sure that Rocky would be a good fit as an autism service dog. While some people do train rescue dogs for service, the vast majority of shelter pets have neither the aptitude nor attitude for this type of work. Whether this challenge would stress Rocky or motivate him to succeed was anyone’s guess.
After a two week trial period Joe adopted Rocky, and the former shelter dog is now on his way to becoming a full-fledged service dog for Chance.
“Rocky has surpassed all our expectations and has been a blessing to our entire family,” Joe says. “He has become Chance’s best friend and they are inseparable. They watch TV together, he goes to the beach with us, shopping, family trips, amusement parks — you name it and Rocky is there with us.”
Rocky has learned commands such as “find Chance” and “up”- moving closer to Chance when he gets upset, crawling onto his lap and calming him down. Rocky is currently in the process of learning “give love,” where he will lick Chance’s face when simply crawling onto his lap to be pet will not work. The big dog with the white socks will soon start attending school with Chance to help with his anxiety.
However, Chance and Rocky are not the only ones who have formed a close bond; the dog has proven himself to be an equal opportunity family pet.
“[Rocky] comes and checks on all of us during the night while we are asleep, sleeping in each of our rooms for a couple of hours to ensure we are okay,” says Joe. “He hangs out with my youngest son, Cole, while he plays his XBox games.”
The children are not the only ones who benefit from the big dog’s abundant love.
“My wife, Stephanie, absolutely adores him mainly because she sees how much happiness he has brought to the entire family,” the Army veteran says, “and when I come from work he is there to greet me doing his signature “Rocky Dance” holding his favorite toy in his mouth. My wife and I constantly say to each other how we won the lottery or won the jackpot when we found Rocky.”
Pooch with a purpose
Rocky has come a long way, adapting well to both his new family life and to his job as a fledgling service animal. While he is already well on his way to completing his required 800 hours of documented training, it was clear that the once homeless dog had much to learn.
“It was obvious to us that Rocky was a sheltered dog and had not been exposed to a lot of things, so we immediately got his training vest and have taken him everywhere with us,” Joe says. “Both my boys are enamored with him and he is well on his way to becoming a full-fledged autism service dog.”
The Army officer feels “blessed” to have adopted Rocky. The concerns he once had about not knowing the dog’s mixed-breed heritage and whether he would fit with the family are a distant memory – and opened his eyes to the value of older companion pets.
“I know everybody loves to adopt a puppy, but remember there are older dogs that need adopting also that will change your life and make great additions to your family,” Joe says. “So if you are a vet or service member and you visit your local humane society, remember to look at the dogs also, just not the puppies.”
As an adult companion dog at the time of his adoption, Rocky meets one of our criteria to receive program benefits. Our goal is helping military veterans adopt the most overlooked shelters dogs and cats – adult and special needs animals, and large breed dogs – and providing benefits to make pet guardianship affordable over the life of the pet.
“When we adopted Rocky I had no idea that Pets for Patriots existed. What a great program,” Joe says. “Thanks for your service and what you do for service members, veterans and dogs.”