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Lending a Helping Paw

German Shepherd

“She’s definitely not just a dog, she’s family to me.”

Her eyes well up with tears as Kristie Korczyk, animal and nutritional sciences major at West Virginia University, reflects on her relationship with Abbey, the service dog she has been fostering for nearly two years.

“I’m definitely proud of Abbey,” she said. “It’s going to be really hard giving her up.”

But giving her up is precisely the goal, and is just one reason the service dog training program in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design is so significant. The program, established nearly 10 years ago in collaboration with Hearts of Gold – a local program that raises, trains and places service dogs – fulfills several objectives.

“I saw the need for pre-veterinary students to have a hands-on canine course,” said Jean Meade, adjunct professor of animal and nutritional sciences in the WVU Davis College and co-founder of the Human-Animal Bond, the non-profit organization that facilitates the Hearts of Gold program. “Additionally, I wanted to address an area that is a deficit in veterinary training – animal behavior.”

Additionally, Meade said she also saw this as a perfect opportunity for civic engagement for our students as they gain disability awareness and interact with the public during their animal behavior training, while gaining hands-on, canine experience for their veterinary applications.

For students like Korczyk, the hands-on component can be an around-the-clock opportunity. Each year, between eight-to-12 students foster the dogs, some caring for them until they are ready to be placed with their handler – a point they typically reach after about two years of training.

After completion of the training program and a successful evaluation, the dogs are placed with people with disabilities, with a special focus on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Our main focus is education and research, but the fact that we actually place these dogs with people who really need them is one of the great ‘by-products’ of the program,” Meade said.

The WVU service dog training program is comprised of three courses – one introductory and two advanced. Hearts of Gold also offers a free training course for the community each summer.

The courses have not only deepened Korczyk’s understanding of animal behavior, which is key since she’s in the process of applying to veterinary school, but have also improved her confidence and communication skills. Much of this is because she serves as a teaching assistant for some of the classes.

“I probably wouldn’t be able to sit here and talk with you right now if I hadn’t taken these courses,” she said with a laugh. “This program has definitely helped me come out of my shell, helping me understand and interact with people better and making me a more outgoing person.”

Korczyk was introduced to the program during her freshman year after she changed her major from exercise physiology to animal and nutritional sciences.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my future at that point, though I knew I wanted to work with animals,” Korczyk said. “So I decided to try out the class to see if I liked it, and I ended up falling in love with it.”

The course wasn’t the only thing to steal Korczyk’ s heart.

“It’s nice to come home to someone who’s always excited to see you and love on you,” she said. “It’s unconditional love at its finest.”

And it’s that kind of love that can be used to heal both inner and outer wounds, which inspires Korczyk.

“It’s amazing to me that I get the opportunity to foster and help train a dog that will hopefully go to a veteran,” she said. “I’ve always wanted Abbey to go to someone with PTSD. I’ve kind of been rooting for that.”

From raising and training Abbey to seeing firsthand how service dogs can affect a veteran’s life, Korczyk’s experiences in the program have opened her eyes to the inexplicable power of the unique relationship between a dog and its owner.

“I think a lot of times we can’t really describe the bond between dog and human,” she said. “You can definitely save someone’s life just with a really good bond.”

Former U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. and WVU alumnus Bradley Knox can attest to the power of such a bond.

“I had written off any human helping me, and so I didn’t think an animal would come close to being able to help me,” Knox said when asked about his early expectations of the service dog training program.

Knox, who graduated in December 2015 from the WVU Regents Bachelor of Arts program, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after fulfilling his four-year active duty contract that included deployments to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010. He learned about the service dog training program through a friend.

“She knew I was in the military and not having the best time dealing with it,” he said.

From volatile sleep patterns caused by nightmares to feeling paralyzed by stress and anxiety in a crowded supermarket, the manifestation of Knox’s PTSD symptoms, which he had been experiencing for more than six months, had reached its peak.

“I’d be in a grocery store just holding my breath, anticipating some goof ball doing something that would harm me,” he described. “I’d just stop and leave the cart – a half-full cart. I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I quit.’”

Knox also suffered from physiological symptoms. For about eight months, his eye was constantly twitching, he said.

After months of trying to cope with these life-disrupting symptoms, Knox had reached the point of surrender.

“I didn’t think there was anything that was going to stop this,” he said. “It was about that time that I started thinking, ‘maybe prescription drugs were going to be the answer.”

But that was not a route Knox wanted to take. And fortunately, he wouldn’t have to.

Knox enrolled in the introductory course during the 2014 summer semester and was paired with Dally, a German shepherd. Their training together would not only open Knox’s eyes to the potential impact a service dog could have on his life, but it would also expedite a potentially lengthy process required to get a service dog.

“A veteran who needs a service dog can be on a wait list for up two years, on average,” Meade said. “So we like to let student veterans know they can come to WVU, participate in the course and train a dog, and potentially walk away with that same dog.”

“[Knox and Dally] worked really well together from the start,” said Lindsay Parenti, director of program operations for Hearts of Gold and Board Certified Behavior Analyst in the WVU Davis College. “The improvement in Dally’s general behavior after being placed with Bradley was astounding.”

The strong bond between the two was also apparent.

“I remember seeing the connection they had every time I saw them together,” Parenti recalled. “Dally would just gaze at him constantly. She looked at him as if he was her entire world.”

Knox soon learned that he had, indeed, become her entire world, and that realization began to reshape his own world.

As he continued to work with her, Knox began to realize that Dally actually wanted to listen to him. It was not just about earning treats in exchange for obedience. Rather, she wanted to listen to him because she wanted to make him happy.

“The best feeling I got was when I realized that it was my presence – it was me – that became the reward after a while,” he said. “My playing with her and giving her attention was the treat.”

About mid-way through the course, Knox started taking Dally home with him, and it was from that point on when he could really see the difference in her behaviors – and his.

“I was sleeping better,” he recalled. “I was just probably a happier person, and probably looking a little healthier, too.”

Another area where Knox noticed a dramatic change in his behavior was in public.

“Going out in public to really heavily trafficked stores is where she is most beneficial,” Knox said. “She depends on me to take care of her, so I’m constantly thinking of what she needs. I’m no longer thinking about other people around me; whereas, before, I was overwhelmed with everybody.”

Knox also noted that about a month after having Dally, his eye stopped twitching.

In terms of Dally’s behavior, the few “bad habits” she had – like chewing up her toys when Knox would leave the house and playfully biting him when he would return– started to diminish after she realized that her home was now with Knox and his fiancé Launa.

“A lot of her behaviors that weren’t so acceptable of a service dog started to subside,” Knox said. “It was very apparent that it was me she was always waiting for. She was always wanting to appease me and make sure that I was happy. And I only wanted to make sure she was happy.”

This co-dependence is one of the reasons why a service dog can have such a transformative impact on the life of a veteran who has PTSD.

“Providing a service dog to veterans with PTSD gives them some hope by giving them something that depends on them every day,” Parenti said. “I think it also provides some of the structure that became so ingrained in them from the military, so this helps them transition back to civilian life.”

Thanks to Dally and the unique bond she shares with Knox, transitioning back into civilian life has become much easier for him.

“She makes me feel like I have someone – a support group – that cares about me,” Knox said. “There’s a bond there. I trust her.”