For retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Hopson, Memorial Day 2019 was particularly memorable ─ it was the first one spent with Max, his new service dog. Hopson received Max, a chocolate Labrador, on Friday, May 24, through the University of Missouri Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) Uniting Veterans with Service Dogs program.
During a hand-off ceremony at Crowder Hall on the MU campus, Rebecca Johnson, PhD, RN, FAAN, FNAP, the director of ReCHAI, said Max is the seventh dog who has been successfully partnered with a veteran since ReCHAI initiated the program a decade ago. The program is funded through Joe and Judy Roetheli’s Lil’ Red Foundation.
Uniting Veterans with Service Dogs has gone through several evolutions, Johnson explained. When the program launched, veterans trained the dogs to be partnered with fellow veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder. Then ReCHAI teamed up with Veterans United, whose employees trained the dogs. At the conclusion of that collaboration, Johnson reached out to Mizzou’s ROTC program, whose leadership identified cadets interested in training the dogs.
Max’s journey to becoming a service dog began inauspiciously. He was in the Marshall, Missouri, Animal Shelter when he was selected to become a part of the Missouri Department of Corrections Puppies for Parole program in the Boonville Correctional Center. The Department of Corrections operates the Puppies for Parole program in 20 of its institutions. Offenders earn the privilege of working with shelter dogs, teaching them obedience and socialization skills to improve the dogs’ chances of being adopted. Through the program, which is now more than 10 years old, 5,500 dogs have been adopted, saving many from likely euthanasia.
Max not only succeeded in Puppies for Parole, he was selected for further training to determine if he had the temperament and ability to become a service animal for a veteran.
Last September four Mizzou ROTC cadets took over Max’s training. Cadet Ali Abdulaziz, a Mizzou senior from Kansas City who is majoring in political science, served as Max’s primary handler. Max lived with Abdulaziz and even attended classes with him. Once or twice per week the two attended an organized training session under the instruction of dog trainers Judy Steiner and John Karl
“I take would the tips from Judy at the training class and then try to apply those while taking him to class and throughout our day,” Abdulaziz said. “I would try to apply the skills that we learned together. So it was pretty much constant.”
Abdulaziz said Max always had a calm demeanor, but at times it was a struggle to keep him motivated. He said there were moments when he questioned whether Max would successfully complete the training and graduate the program.
“He was always calm enough, except he had a squirrel issue when we would go on walks,” Abdulaziz said. “So once we started to break that habit of him lunging a little or trying to pull a little ─ because at first we didn’t know if the veteran would have any physical disabilities so we didn’t want anyone to get dragged ─ but once he started doing better with his prey drive and (stopped) chasing squirrels, that’s when we kind of knew he was pretty much ready. He has the temperament, the skills just have to come with time. He has some skills now, and he’s developing more and more as John needs him to,” Abdulaziz said.
Abdulaziz said he too has grown from the experience of training Max. “Max became a better listener, and so did I.
“Seeing John interact with Max, and then caring about Max ─ he’s like a kid almost ─ so being able to take care of another living being, and bring love, and making a bond like that, it’s amazing,” Abdulaziz said.
During the ceremony to hand off Max to Hopson, Abdulaziz thanked the veteran for his service, “John, thank you. I hope Max becomes your best friend like he became mine,” he said.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mike Fayette, who received Whiskey, the first dog trained through the Uniting Veterans with Service Dogs program, also spoke during the ceremony. He commended the cadets for their involvement in the program.
“The selflessness you are demonstrating has tremendous value,” he said. “Values are sometimes more important than success.”
Fayette recounted being wounded in Iraq in 2005 and waking up in a hospital to witness a therapy dog making the rounds visiting injured soldiers. He said just as that dog did back in Iraq, his dog, Whiskey, makes him feel better. “He’s medicine, that’s backed by science, that’s backed by research coming from ReCHAI,” Fayette said.
Retired Lt. Col. Cliff Grantham also received a dog through the program two years ago. He has combat-related PTSD with hypervigilance. He said before he was given his service dog, Doughby, he was reluctant to leave the house. Now he is willing to go out to shop and visit friends. His dog is also trained to help him back to his feet when he falls.
“I now have some semblance of life back,” he said.
Hopson served in the Army for 22 years, including overseas deployments as part of Operation of Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, in Bosnia, Operation Iraqi Freedom One and Operation Iraqi Freedom Two. His final tour ended in 2006.
He works as a readjustment counseling therapist for combat veterans at the Vet Center in Columbia. He said his decision to become Max’s veteran started with a phone call from Johnson to the Vet Center. While he was initially hesitant, his colleagues encouraged him to consider applying for the dog.
He began working with Max in April, attending training and getting the Lab acclimated to his new home.
He said Max will not only help him with his PTSD symptoms, he plans to bring him to work for other veterans in therapy.
“I think some of the veterans that I work for, I can actually show them, look, just because you have the diagnosis, if you have a dog you can still do ok,” he said. “I think I can be a little bit of a role model in a way.”
Hopson said he is grateful for the community working together to help veterans.
“I think it’s a great thing what Mizzou and all the people behind Max are doing for our veterans. It’s really about the community coming together. All the time and the effort and the training and everything, and all the medical services they provided to Max have all been paid for. And it’s all out of people’s hearts.”
During the hand-off ceremony, Hopson quoted the poet W.H. Auden, “In times of joy, all of us wish we possessed a tail we could wag.”