- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

SPRINGDALE, Ark. (AP) - For Justin Six, the nightmares started after Kosovo.

“We were doing a maneuver and I was about to shoot an 8-year-old. That and working the mine fields,” said Six, a soldier living in Springdale, Arkansas, with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ever since his deployment, the 35-year-old has lived an isolated life, the Springfield News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/1JHmMRS ) reported.

But lately he’s been crawling out of the darkness with help from Maggie, a puppy he adopted who is training to be his service dog.

“Me and her just get along. I’m very antisocial and Maggie gets me out of the house. She gives me companionship when my wife is at work,” he said.

When Justin’s nightmares start, Maggie wakes him up by jostling his hands or waking up his wife. She’s attuned to his emotions.

“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think he’d still be here,” said Justin’s wife, Brandi. “The depression was so bad, I was scared to leave him alone . Within a month of getting her, I started to see a change in him.”

Maggie has been a blessing in more ways than one, and this little pup’s life started in Springfield, Missouri.

First came the rescue

In February, EMT driver Sarah Shoemaker and her partner parked their ambulance near a downtown bridge in Springfield while they waited for calls.

It was there that Shoemaker spotted Maggie and her three siblings living under a bridge near the railroad tracks.

“They were skinny and nasty looking,” Shoemaker said.

She brought them dog food and fed them.

A few nights later the temperature plummeted.

Shoemaker was afraid the stray pups would die. She called her supervisor and asked for permission to transport the animals to her house.

When the partners searched for the dogs, they only found three. She doesn’t know if the fourth had been rescued or had died, but she took the litter home.

“I came in at midnight and my husband said, ‘What’s that?’ I said ‘I couldn’t let them die,’” she said.

This wasn’t her first animal rescue. The next day, she called Haven of the Ozarks, a no-kill shelter in Washburn, Missouri, which is near Cassville.

There was a two-week waiting list to get the animals in, so Shoemaker and her husband dewormed the dogs and kept them until the shelter could take them. Shoemaker said she wanted to keep Maggie because it was her favorite pup, but Shoemaker’s husband reminded her they already had three dogs, so off Maggie went.

Rescued becomes rescuer

Haven of the Ozarks was founded in 1995 in Shell Knob, but moved to its current location in Washburn in 1998, said Jennifer Silverberg, treasurer.

It can house 150 dogs and 60 cats a month.

“We are a no-kill shelter so we may have a dog for 10 years. Luckily with social media, those cases don’t happen as much anymore,” said Silverberg.

It is funded completely by donations and fundraisers. Every month, the nonprofit has mobile adoptions in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Maggie went in March.

It’s rare for Justin Six to leave the house because crowds make him anxious and he has a fear of people walking up behind him, but that afternoon Justin and Brandi were headed to Barnes & Noble.

Petco was nearby, which is where Haven of the Ozarks had set up its mobile adoption.

“I said, ‘Let’s stop’ and his exact words were, ‘We’re not getting a dog,’” chuckled Brandi.

His connection with Maggie was instant.

“I took her for a walk and that was it,” Justin said.

Within a month, Brandi noticed he had less anxiety in public.

“I noticed he seemed a lot happier. It’s almost like she’s got his back,” Brandi said.

Maggie gets Justin out of the house more as he takes her for walks. He describes her as a “lovable” dog who is goofy and brings him comfort.

Soon after they adopted her, they had her evaluated to see if she would make a good service dog. Among other things, service dogs can’t startle easily, need to focus and must ignore other dogs.

Maggie passed.

She is training through a new organization- so new it hasn’t officially launched and is waiting for its nonprofit status approval - Service Dogs of Distinction.

The organization services northwest Arkansas and Little Rock.

Marsha Wyatt is one of the founders and is training Maggie. She has worked with animals for 25 years and says she continues to be amazed at the transformational powers animals have on humans.

“PTSD service dogs offer support for the veteran who often suffers social anxiety, depression, agoraphobia and is reclusive. The dogs offer unconditional love, are available 24/7, provide unwavering commitment and are their combat comrades. Soldiers are so connected to fellow soldiers and miss that bond and support terribly after war,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt has watched Justin come out of his shell and has seen some of his anxiety ease since she’s been working with him. Wyatt meets with Maggie and Justin and then it’s Justin’s responsibility to follow up and do “homework” or training with Maggie throughout the week.

Justin was diagnosed with PTSD in 2013. The VA’s National Center for PTSD does not recognize service dogs as a treatment for PTSD, saying there is not enough evidence to prove the animals help.

But Justin Six and Wyatt have no doubt and would love to see more veterans get a service dog.

There are so many soldiers suffering, said Wyatt.

“With the rate of veterans committing suicide, we need help. There is not enough recognition or help for these soldiers,” Wyatt said.

After Maggie settled into her new life, Brandi sent a private Facebook message to staff at the Haven to let them know what a difference this dog had made in the Sixes’ lives.

Silverberg read the message and asked if Brandi would be willing to share her story because there was a national competition for shelters to earn a grant from Petco in exchange for real life stories from families who had adopted animals.

“With those national things, you never think you’re going to win but it doesn’t hurt to try. It was two days before the deadline, so I told her I understood it was last minute if she didn’t want to do it,” Silverberg said.

There were more than 3,000 entries nationwide.

But Brandi posted her story and Haven of the Ozarks won a $5,000 grant from Petco, which will be applied to its operating costs.

“That money was needed. Lately we’ve had more dogs with health problems and dental problems and $5,000 doesn’t even cover one month of vet bills,” said Silverberg.

Because the nonprofit is located in rural Missouri, they have a hard time recruiting and maintaining volunteers.

“We joke that no one knows where we are unless they want to dump a dog,” Silverberg said.

Some people shy away from volunteering because they think it’s depressing, but Silverberg, who lives in Springfield and drives more than an hour to volunteer at the shelter, says it is a happy place. Outside of a real home, it’s the next best thing for these animals.

The animals they take in are strays or abandoned.

It’s not unusual to hear from a family who has had a successful adoption, said Silverberg, “but this is a great story. I am so happy for them.”

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