Staff Sgt. Terry Stallings of Mesa served in the Army for 23 years, including posts in Iraq, Balad, Kuwait, Desert Storm, Mexico, Central America, Alaska, Portugal and Germany.
After six combat deployments overseas, he returned home and was diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder and looked toward companionship to help him cope.
“He’s basically my battle buddy,” Stallings said. “Wherever I go, he follows me. If I’m laying down, he lays down at the foot of our bed. If I’m in the living room, he lays down next to my chair. He’s always ready to help me.”
“He” is Stallings’ service dog, a
135-pound Anatolian shepherd named Koda.
“Koda’s learned when I’m having nightmares, he’ll come up and he’ll comfort me,” Stallings said. “He’ll put his wet, cold nose on me at night when I’m sleeping and wake me up because he knows I’m having a bad dream or an episode or something like that.”
“So he’s always there.”
Stallings and his wife, Debbie, picked up two Anatolian brothers with the intention of eventually training one or both as service dogs.
They turned to Soldier’s Best Friend, an Arizona nonprofit that trains dogs to work with veterans with PTSD or a combat-related traumatic brain injury. The organization either pairs the veteran with a dog adopted from a local shelter or they train a dog already owned by the veteran.
Soldier’s Best Friend, formed in 2001, comes at no cost to the veteran and is funded through donations, grants and fundraisers.
It has helped hundreds of veterans, with nearly 300 dog-veteran teams that have graduated with the help of a staff made up of veterans, PTSD therapists, service dog trainers, veterinarians and nonprofit professionals.
Not all dogs at Soldier’s Best Friend start out like Koda, already belonging to the veteran; many come from local shelters around the Valley.
Sarah Eccleton, the organization’s dog adoption and placement coordinator, said she tries to understand the veteran’s lifestyle and needs, then pair them with a dog to complete the training program.
“I get an understanding of what they’re capable of training and working with,” Eccleton said, “how active they are, how much grooming they’re willing to do, what needs they have for their traumatic brain injury or PTSD.”
“I evaluate them for temperament, good with people, good with dogs, good with other animals, trainability and if they’re food- or toy-motivated,” Eccleton said.
Veterans who are paired with rescue dogs are not charged for veterinary services and most supplies during the training process, the organization says, and veterans who own dogs will get veterinary services at a reduced rate during training.
Each veteran and dog go through a six- to nine-month training program. The program’s teaching is aligned with the Canine Good Citizen training – a 10-skill program that teaches dogs the basics of manners and obedience – and requires a minimum of three personal service tasks.
The veteran also is given a written test that covers proper care and training techniques for their dogs.
Allison Walker, a lead trainer, said they focus on training the veterans how to train the dog themselves.
While the primary focus of Soldier’s Best Friend is to train the dogs to be service animals, the program is equally as rigorous for training the veterans since PTSD symptoms often makes everyday tasks nearly impossible for some.
“We tell them that this program is going to push their boundaries and test their limits,” Walker said, “because, although we don’t want to overwhelm anyone, we want them when they are in the real world to know how to respond to things.”
Stallings said the training program changed his mind about repetitiveness and perseverance.
“There’s a saying in the program: It only takes a couple of weeks to train a dog; it takes six to nine months to train the veteran,” Stallings said. “The dog will usually get it before the veteran gets it. You learn patience really quick, which is a skill that when you go back into the civilian world, it’s really hard to have patience.”
Anatolian shepherds, like Koda, are livestock guard dogs and trackers that can detect, recognize and follow a scent. Stallings said this trait is most beneficial for him when he’s in crowded places and begins to feel anxious.
“If I’m looking in one aisle and she’s in another, and I kind of feel like I’m getting amped up – my PTSD or whatever – and I need to get back to my wife, I can tell Koda, ‘Find Mom.’ And what he’ll do is he’ll immediately go into track mode and he’ll take me back to her,” Stallings said.
Koda is his second set of eyes.
“I’ve always worried about people being behind me where I can’t see,” Stallings said. ”So, I taught him to watch my back. He would sit on my right side and look behind me. He’ll actually nudge me, letting me know there are people behind me, that he can see them and it’s OK.”
Koda also “has learned to turn on light switches, to open up all the doors in the house and close them,” Stallings said.
At the beginning of the program, Stallings could tell that Koda did not understand why he was training or going through such repetitive motions.
But it didn’t take long to see a change in himself and his dog.
“All of a sudden, the light would kick on, and he’d understand,” Stallings said. “It’s kind of cool to see him get it. It’s almost like he’s smiling, he’s figured it out. ‘I know why I’m doing this.’”
Walker said she, too, can see a dog’s mentality change throughout the training.
“One day they come in and they realize they are no longer just a pet,” Walker said.
Walker said she began at Soldier’s Best Friend with the intention of learning to train and educate, but seeing the difference a service dog can make on a veteran is the most rewarding part.
“Being able to help veterans achieve that sense of independence again,” Walker said, “especially helping them communicate with their dogs more effectively and connect with their dogs … because they do come to trust each other.”
Stallings said Soldier’s Best Friend only strengthened the bond between him and Koda, and now they’re more than just pet and owner.
“He acts like he has a purpose,” Stallings said.