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Service dog helps U.S. Army veteran lead ‘somewhat of a normal life’

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Updated: December 12, 2013 6:26AM

Chris Maddeford’s best friend can open doors and deliver his keys and cellphone on demand. He snuggles up when Maddeford is sad or upset.

AJ, a 6-year-old pure-bred American Labrador retriever, is Maddeford’s service dog. AJ has been a constant companion since Maddeford, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan, got him in 2009.

“When I came home, I had all these injuries from the war. I had a really hard time adjusting, really hard time fitting back in,” said Maddeford, 31, a Boston native who now lives in Chicago. “I didn’t feel normal. I didn’t really have a purpose or any hope. And it wasn’t until I got AJ that it kind of brought me out, basically back into society.”

Maddeford was a member of the military police in 2003 when a roadside bomb detonated in Afghanistan, killing some of his fellow soldiers. He continues to recuperate from the injuries he suffered in the blast.

He’s had multiple surgeries on his back and hip. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But on this Veterans Day, Maddeford is reflecting on how AJ is helping him turn his life around.

“AJ’s with me now, everywhere I go. AJ’s really made an impact in my life — the ability now where I’m basically able to live somewhat of a normal life.”

The dog helps Maddeford by fetching his keys and his cellphone and even his own leash. And walking side by side with AJ keeps Maddeford from falling. He said his brain injury causes him to lose balance frequently.

“He keeps me walking straight. . . . I had back surgery, so I drop things sometimes and he can pick it up. He turns on lights, he can open doors, push buttons. He basically is smarter than most humans. But the main thing is I have a lot of falls, and if I fall, he speaks on command. If I fall and no one is around, he’ll go outside and he’ll speak on command until someone comes.”

AJ is part of the National Education for Assistance Dog Services, and specifically part of the Canines for Combat Veterans program, which has placed more than 55 dogs with veterans since 2006. NEADS is one of several organizations in the country that provide service dogs to veterans.

The Massachusetts-based organization also provides service dogs for people who are deaf, people with other physical disabilities and autistic children.

All clients, except for veterans, must pay about $9,500 to get a service dog, according to Lisa Brown, a spokeswoman for the organization. She said it costs about $25,000 to purchase, raise and train the dogs. For many clients, the organization asks for help raising funds.

“But for veterans, we provide them free of charge, considering they’ve given so much of themselves and their lives,” she said. “It’s sort of the least we can do to give back.”

Although there have been no studies to prove a service dog’s effect on veterans — something that has stopped similar programs from getting federal funding — there are plenty of veterans on waiting lists nationwide, trying to get a dog.

Of the 1.64 million service members sent to Afghanistan and Iraq as of October 2007, about 300,000 currently suffer from PTSD or major depression, and about 320,000 may have experienced a traumatic brain injury during deployment, according to a study by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

Ira Kaplan, a veterinarian and director of medical services at NEADS, said service dogs handle more than just the physical needs of veterans.

“A dog can go into a room and turn on a light switch for a veteran so they don’t go into a dark room, if that’s something that they fear or if it brings back flashbacks,” Kaplan said. “We can’t train a dog to wake somebody up who’s having a bad dream. But our dogs do that all the time,”

Kaplan said service dogs also intuitively have nudged veterans if they become focused on a rooftop, which is something they’re trained to do in combat while searching for snipers.

“They are companions, but what they really do is they stop — for a lot of people — the feeling of loss. It allows people to focus on another individual, and not their own issues.”


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