Saint Francis Service Dogs: Team Eric and Nemo

In 2010, Eric was injured during a training exercise as a member of the United States Marine Corps. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a back injury that has since developed into degenerative disc disease and chronic pain. He received treatment at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia for two years. During this time, he was also diagnosed with PTSD, OCD, and anxiety that his doctors have attributed as likely related to his TBI. His disability was declared at 100% by the VA, meaning they expected no great improvement in his condition, and he was discharged from the Marine Corps. During this period of diagnosis and treatment, Eric says that a fellow veteran and friend mentioned how much a service dog had helped him, so he started doing a bit of research of his own. He found Saint Francis Service Dogs, and we couldn’t be happier that he did. In 2012, he was matched with a Saint Francis Service Dog named Diesel. For the last nine years, Diesel has helped Eric live a more independent life and been a steady, stable force for Eric, even as much has changed in his life during this time. In these nine years, Eric and his wife have had two children, and Eric has started taking college courses and is well on his way to his bachelor’s degree. Diesel assists Eric by picking up dropped items, retrieving out of reach items, helping with household chores, and stabilizing Eric’s movement and balance when transitioning between positions. All of these tasks help mitigate Eric’s chronic back pain and enable him to feel safe and secure. Diesel also allows Eric to be present in public outings for and with his family, where his anxiety and PTSD can sometimes be overwhelming. Eric says, “This partnership has allowed me to have a meaningful life. With Diesel by my side, I have been able to attend college classes, go to family gatherings, and truly enjoy life much more than before I had a service dog.” His friends and family also acknowledge how much of an impact Diesel has on Eric’s independence. A close family friend tells us, “Diesel has allowed Eric to be an active participant in his children’s lives. We attended one event where Diesel was not able to come, and the difference in Eric’s ability to be present and interact was significant. It has been wonderful to see how much joy and independence Diesel brings to Eric and his entire family.”
Most of our service dog partnerships last between eight and ten years, and Eric had recently noticed that
Diesel was telling him that he was ready to think about retirement. However, Eric relied on Diesel to get
through each day. To allow Diesel to relax and enjoy his senior years as a loving and loved pet while also
allowing Eric to continue to live an independent life, Eric made the decision to submit an application for a
successor dog in late 2019. Successor dogs are dogs that are placed with prior partners of Saint Francis
Service Dogs. In some ways, these partnerships are more difficult to match than first time teams, because
we want to be sure that the new dog fits in with the partner’s existing style of working with their service
dog and that the partner is aware and ready for the new partnership to feel different than their previous
partnership. We started the search for a new teammate for Eric. Nemo was puppy raised in our Prison Puppy Program at Bland Correctional Center and began Advanced Training just before the pandemic began. He lived and worked one-on-one with Saint Francis Field Trainer, Lesleigh Cook. He, his classmates, and all of our trainers worked hard under ever-changing circumstances as we adjusted to operating under COVID restrictions. In December of 2020, he passed his Level II test and was ready to be matched.
Lesleigh describes him as very attentive, honest, and eager to please. He loves children, and among his
many strengths, she noted that he had very strong “cover” and “hug” commands, where the dog applies
therapeutic pressure to the partner to redirect focus. This is a command that our dogs partnered with
individuals with autism use commonly, but it also has applications for any type of stress or anxiety that
affects many of our partners. When applying for his second service dog, we asked Eric if there was
anything he would like his new teammate to do that Diesel did not do. He noted that while Diesel is
extremely affectionate and attentive, he is not much of a snuggler or “hugger,” and he felt that a dog that
would provide therapeutic pressure could further alleviate the challenges of his PTSD and anxiety in
public settings. With that in mind, along with his strengths in position work and retrieval, our training
staff thought Nemo and Eric may be a fit, and they set up the interview.
In February of 2021, Eric came to our facility with his family and Diesel. He first interviewed with Nemo
one-on-one, and then the rest of the family got a chance to interview with him as well. It was a match
made in heaven all around. Two weeks later, Eric came and completed Team Training with Nemo and
they passed their Level III test together, demonstrating mastery of commands, control, problem solving,
and safety.
Nemo has allowed Eric to maintain the same level of independence that Diesel first helped him achieve.
As a busy father, husband, student, and community member, Eric cannot let his pain and anxiety stand in
his way. With Nemo by his side, he is able to continue to be present and active for his family, and Diesel
can rest easy in retirement, knowing that his partner is well taken care of.

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