For us dog lovers, there is nothing better than a well-trained, good tempered dog. Sara Enos with Operation Sidekick thinks so too. This is why she is working hard to properly train service and therapy dogs specifically for disabled veterans and those living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD can have a range of symptoms such as bad dreams, frightening thoughts, and even flashbacks.
“Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day on average,” Enos tells me during our interview. She points out that about one person in active duty commits suicide each day overseas, but our service men and women who return home are taking their own lives in shocking numbers. * Home is where they are supposed to be safe, but it just doesn’t seem that way.
Enos has a solution: pair veterans with service dogs. She has already seen this work with tremendous results through the Wilmington “Paws 4 People” program. Sara witnessed the benefits when she was in a group session with veterans and their dogs. She recalls a meeting where a vet described a difficult situation he encountered overseas, his service dog sleeping at his side. As the veteran’s heart began to beat faster, the dog stirred and sat up. As the vet got a little more anxious and began to sweat, the dog laid his head in his human’s lap. Sara watched as the dog used his head to nudge his owner’s hand, stopping the vet’s oncoming flashback in its tracks. “It was simply amazing,” Enos says. It was this kind of humandog connection that has continued to motivate her to do the same here in Mecklenburg County.
Service men and women are constantly faced with the possibility of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and peope intending to harm them in overseas areas. For example, a service member driving down a road in a foreign country is trained to watch for roadside bombs. Something as trivial as a pile of garbage could contain an explosive device. So when they return home, veterans driving down our North Carolina highways see a bag of garbage, and their training tells them it might explode. This causes tremendous mental stress.
Because of this, many returning veterans have an unease of being out in public. Greg is one of those people. He and his dog, Delilah, have been part of Operation Sidekick, where Enos’s team helps train Delilah to perform certain tasks. Enos met with Greg and Delilah recently at a nearby park to check on their progress. The three sat on the grass with Delilah lying down behind Greg.
“I don’t have to worry about what’s around me,” Greg told Enos. “Delilah has my six,” which in layman’s terms means “she has my back.”
Did I mention that Delilah is an American Pit Bull Terrier? Pit bulls get a bad rap in this country because of how owners have misused them. But in reality, pit bulls have been successful as police dogs and in search and rescue missions as well as therapy dogs. They are working dogs at heart, and they can do things like fetch medications, open doors, and even call 911. Our service men and women are used to being hypervigilant because of the threats they face overseas. This is one job Greg can hand off to Delilah.
Pairing veterans and pit bulls makes so much sense to me. Both have been misunderstood at times and even unfairly stereotyped. When Greg looks at elilah, though, he doesn’t judge her by her breed, and Delilah has nothing but love and concern for her human.
Enos says over a million pit bulls are euthanized by shelters each year. Through Operation Sidekick, she is trying to prevent both veterans and pit bulls from becoming a statistic.
Besides Operation Sidekick, Enos’s non-profit organization, the American Pit Bull Foundation, helps foster pit bulls and facilitate their adoption. Located here in Mint Hill, APBF also visits schools to teach kids and teens about dog care and safety with programs like their “Positive Pit Care” school program and “How Kids Should Greet a Dog.” If you would like to learn more about Operation Sidekick, please visit www.operationsidekick.com or connect through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. *Statistics taken from “Coming back with Wes Moore,” available at http://www.pbs.org/coming-backwith-wes-moore/about/facts/.