Garland Shirley with his service dog Smitty. (Stephen Gassman / Telegraph Herald)
DUBUQUE, Iowa – Steve Vincent glanced at the dog patiently standing next to his chair.
“Get it,” he ordered.
Doc, a 2 year old yellow Labrador, immediately picked up the leash Vincent had dropped and returned it to its owner.
“Thank you,” replied Vincent, a resident of Maquoketa, Iowa.
Nearby, Dubuquer Garland Shirley patted his own dog, Smitty, who was lying quietly next to him. Like Doc, Smitty wore a black vest that proclaimed his status as a service dog.
Vincent and Shirley were paired with Doc and Smitty through IOWA (Inspiring Our Warriors of America) Service Dogs.
The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports that the nonprofit, founded in 2019, provides first responders and veterans with mobility and psychiatric service dogs free of charge. Shirley and Vincent are the first two “Warriors” to complete the program with their canine companions.
“These people have gone out and served for us, be it for our country or for a community, and they have seen a lot and done a lot for us,” said Jamie Fisher, executive director of IOWA Service Dogs.
Vincent served in the US Army for 31 years, including two missions in Iraq between 2003 and 2010.
On his first deployment, he sustained a serious head injury in an explosion that went untreated.
“We were told that if you weren’t dead or shot you’d keep working, so I did,” he said.
Vincent was medically retired and honored in 2012. However, when he returned to civilian life, he struggled.
When diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to his brain injury, he became anxious in public.
“It’s been a year since I came back and I’ve never left the house,” he said. “… I don’t like it when people stand behind me and touch me. It’s like turning around and going back to battle. ”
The mating with his first service dog Dee in 2013 gave Vincent a new life. She kept him calm, gave him someone to talk to and gave solace in tense or emotional situations.
However, after eight years of service, Dee was ready for retirement. So Vincent’s wife Julie helped him apply for a new service dog through IOWA Service Dogs – and Doc joined the family.
In turn, Shirley served as a firefighter and medic for the city of Des Moines for four years. In 2007, while doing ice water exercise, he aspirated ice water into his lungs, which caused severe scars.
Due to the injury, he had to retire medically in 2009 and received a bilateral lung transplant in 2017 after years of treatment.
After his career as a first responder, Shirley pursued his passion for coaching softball and has been Head Softball Coach at Clarke University since 2018.
The idea of a service dog never crossed his mind until a change in medication last fall resulted in chronic pulmonary rejection. Doctors were able to stop the rejection but not reverse the damage, and Shirley’s breathing became more difficult.
“For example, we’ve had a couple of times where I mowed and it got so far that I couldn’t breathe,” he said.
At the suggestion of his fiancée Angie McGuire, Shirley applied for a dog through IOWA Service Dogs.
Now Smitty can tell when Shirley is short of breath and can bring help or an oxygen bottle with her if necessary.
It’s a different role from what Doc plays for Vincent, but just as important, according to Vincent’s wife Julie.
“These two guys have invisible wounds here,” she said.
Shirley and Vincent were selected to receive service dogs after completing multiple applications and months of training with IOWA Service Dogs. They learned dog behavior and body language, laws surrounding service dogs, and more.
“We’ve trained so much that I’m sick of it. That’s why I knew it was good,” said Shirley.
Fisher said the nonprofit’s dogs are from select breeders and must pass health and aptitude tests. When health care, food, training, and supplies are considered, each dog costs IOWA Service Dogs about $ 20,000 to prepare for service life.
Doc and Smitty worked with volunteer supervisors and coaches for two years, with Shirley and Vincent attending class in the last six months.
The men continue training the dogs with daily command training, and IOWA Service Dogs coordinators will visit them regularly.
Both men emphasized the depth of training the dogs had and the discipline required to serve their owner almost constantly. They said it is this intense instruction that sets dogs like Doc and Smitty apart from animals with emotional support.
“These dogs work from puppyhood through retirement,” said Vincent.
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