By Aida Garcia
I am a disabled combat veteran. At one time, I lived and breathed the Marine Corps. From the day I stepped foot on the yellow footprints, I had no doubt this was what I wanted to do with my life. But after 12 years in, my career came to an end – and not the end I expected or wanted. I was crushed and lost. I went through some very dark periods not knowing what to do now. I went from having a purpose to feeling empty and lost.
My Veterans Affairs (VA) doctor recommended I get a service dog. She said it would help me get along better and give me a sense of purpose again. To me, what I heard was: ‘Put a big sign on my forehead saying “I’m screwed up and broken”.’ Like many other veterans, I kept things to myself a lot. I’m a big, bad Marine and I don’t need help, especially a type of help that was obvious to everyone around me that something was wrong with me.
Plus, I had a dog who I loved and enjoyed more than anything else. When my dog stopped being able to do as much because of a hip and knee issue, I stopped doing things as much. I retreated to my house and kept to myself. He taught me so much and he didn’t care if I had problems; his love for me never changed.
A few years went by and I was coping, some days better than others. I found that I was easy to anger and frustrated with life. The medications prescribed to me seemed to mess me up more and the side effects were horrible.
I finally got a new doctor who really cared about how I was doing and how I was feeling; with her help, I started to stabilize. My meds were reduced and I was feeling better, but there was obviously still something missing to make me whole again.
I started a new career that I loved and my life went back to having a purpose. I became a certified dog trainer. Working with dogs has been nothing short of amazing, but it was the people I still struggled with at times. Having to talk to a bunch of people who I didn’t know was not easy, but I loved the dogs.
My job encompassed my life and I started working with puppy raisers training future service dogs. I started to notice how much of a difference they made in my life when I took them out and loved hearing stories of how they changed their person’s life.
Throughout this time, I got counseling, was fully stable with my meds, stopped retreating to my house everyday, and was working on mending broken relationships. I was in a way better place and this was because of the dogs. How could dogs that don’t even belong to me give me a sense of purpose again? How could they affect my life so much in such a small amount of time spent with them?
I was finally ready. Ready to admit that I wasn’t perfect. Ready to embrace my disabilities and live my life fully with them. Ready for people to see me as I am.
I needed more – more freedom, more activities, more socialization. That’s when a close friend mentioned that the dog who had been dropped into my lap months before should start training for service dog work. I mean, we had been training her with the purpose of getting her a good home.
She came from a home where she was supposed to be trained as a service dog. But life happened and the training did not. She quickly grew attached to me and my dogs quickly grew attached to her. I started more intense training with her and began to take her out with me.
My friends started to notice that I went more places and did more things when I was with her. I felt safe; she had my back much like my brothers and sisters in arms.
She changed my life and I didn’t even want her. It takes more than just a trained service dog to help people. People need to first, admit they need help and second, take action.
I have learned that needing help does not make me weak or less of a person.
Actually, I learned asking for help made me a stronger person. I had to put my pride aside and reach out for help.
I learned that there are many people there if you just ask.
I learned that no one will look at you as any less of a person because of your need for extra support.
This relationship only worked because I put in the work first. I got myself in a better place that allowed me to take back control of my life and start taking better care of myself.
A service dog enhances a person’s life but only if the person lets it. You have to want one and you have to be in a good place to be able to care for not only yourself, but another living being.
It took me years to get to that place.
She changed my life and I didn’t even want her. I need her and I accept the fact that I need her. When you are willing to open yourself up and get out of your comfort zone, there is no better feeling than knowing you have a partner to stand by your side and constantly lift you up. I Got Your 6 has never rung out so true.
About the Author
Aida Garcia of Horns to Halos Dog Training, LLC has always had a passion for animals and grew up wanting to be a K9 handler. Although, when she served in the Marine Corps, she ended up on a different path, it still brought her back to training. She started working with dogs six years ago when she got her shepherd, Duke. Together, they completed all levels of obedience, Treibball, agility, and other fun off leash work. She wanted to continue learning so attended the Karen Pryor Academy, completing it in 2013. She has a passion for dog sports and fitness which let her to study massage techniques, strength building exercises, and stretching techniques and uses them to help her dogs as well as her clients’. She is also a therapy dog trainer.