- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - United States Army veteran Nicholas Willis used to be unable to drive due to post-traumatic stress disorder, but he now gladly gets behind the wheel with his foster dogs at his side.

Willis, of New Site, served as a sergeant in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and volunteer work was suggested by his doctor to help manage his PTSD symptoms. Because he and wife Kim have always loved animals, they decided to foster dogs from the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society.

Nicholas said his wife got him into working with dogs when she saw a Facebook post about an Irish Setter-German shepherd mix at the shelter, which the couple then adopted.

Michelle Pugh, TLHS rescue and foster coordinator, said Nicholas’ connection with the dogs struck her from the beginning.

“He’s got a really good heart,” she said. “You can tell the animals really take to him.”

Nicholas said he connects with dogs more easily than with people, especially dogs who are shy or withdrawn like him. He said he enjoys bringing the dogs out of their shells and training them.

“It’s helped me a lot, and it’s helped the dogs too,” Nicholas said.

Kim and Nicholas said they focus on house training the dogs at first and then teach them basic commands and to use a leash.

Kim said although it is hard to see each dog leave after its foster period is over, she and Nicholas are happy to help the dogs while they can.

An Irish Wolfhound mix named Spike who could not stand or walk when she and Nicholas took him in stands out in particular in Kim’s mind.

Kim said Spike moved by crawling on his stomach at first, but by the time she and Nicholas brought him back to be transported up north he was walking confidently.

Nicholas said he recommends fostering to anyone dealing with stressful personal problems.

“For one thing, it makes you feel good,” he said. “Depending on what that person has going on in their life, it can really help.”

U.S. Navy veteran Lyhn Dyas, of Tupelo, said volunteering at TLHS helps him cope with PTSD symptoms as well, and he believes working with dogs can be helpful to those struggling with the disorder.

Dyas served on ocean support ships from 1975-95 but suffers from PTSD due to an accident in 2006 in which he fell off of a roof.

Veterans need a purpose after coming home, Dyas said, and he said he fears many veterans have trouble finding a good purpose to focus on.

“When you’re a vet, you need to help someone or something, and who better to help than a hopeless, helpless dog?” he said. “We lose a lot of vets because they check out.”

Eventually, Dyas said he wants to create a nonprofit organization that matches homeless dogs with local veterans as a means of therapy.

Dyas said if the city, state or possibly residents could sponsor the dogs in the program to pay for their medical expenses and training, the program could offer veterans the chance to adopt the dogs at a substantially lower cost than through other avenues of adoption or purchase.

Similar programs like Pets for Vets and Paws for Veterans are in place across the country, but Dyas said he wants to bring that same opportunity for healing to Tupelo.

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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