It is late afternoon at the Aiken County Animal Shelter. Jerry Lyda, a man with curly graying hair and twinkling blue eyes, stands in front of a rangy, muscular boxer crossed with Lord-knows-what-else named Olivia. He is holding up a piece of hot dog in his closed hand.
Jerry knows something about dogs – he has trained them all his life.
Olivia focuses intently on Jerry (or maybe on the hot dog – I can’t tell.) She prances at his feet.
I hold my breath. Olivia is the Michael Jordan of dogs – capable of jumping to astonishing heights from a standstill. I fear she will spring up on those powerful haunches and snatch the hot dog and a finger or two with it.
“Olivia, sit,” said Jerry in a calm, but firm, tone. She cocks her head, thinks about it, resumes prancing.
Undaunted, he holds the treat a bit higher, takes a step closer and repeats the command.
“Olivia,” he said, “sit.”
She cocks her head again; the wheels are turning. Slowly, she begins to lower her rear end to the ground. Is this what you want? her look says.
It is. Jerry showers her with praise (“Good girl, Olivia, good girl!”) and rewards her with the coveted bit of hot dog.
He turns to me with a big smile and says, “I LIKE this dog.”
I was delighted. Jerry is a Vietnam veteran and the founder of Veterans K9 Solutions in Augusta, a nonprofit organization that matches shelter dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD.
“Each year, 300,000 to 400,000 veterans are diagnosed with PTSD,” said Jerry. “The military estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide every day – 22!”
He shakes his head. “Our love for dogs and gratitude toward those who served makes our goal simple – give back to those in need by saving two lives at once: a traumatized veteran and a homeless dog.”
I had contacted Jerry about Luci, a young boxer cross who had been surrendered to the shelter by a distraught serviceman being deployed overseas. He cried when he handed Luci over. He was heartbroken; we all were.
So Luci held a special place in our hearts. She was affectionate and quiet, and the idea of placing her as a service dog seemed so right given how and why she had come to the shelter.
Jerry agreed to check her out.
Olivia was a different story. Strong and athletic with boundless energy, I fretted over her fate. Who could possibly be capable of harnessing all that force and spirit?
As it turned out, longtime FOTAS volunteer Ellie Joos was; she saw promise in Olivia. Ellie began basic obedience work with her under the guidance of Nancy Webster, a local trainer.
Olivia surprised me: I was stunned by the difference in her behavior after just two weeks of training. She was softer, more relaxed. I asked Jerry to take a look at Olivia, too.
In the end, Jerry accepted both Luci and Olivia into the Veterans K9 Solutions program – an outcome that makes us all, but particularly me and Ellie, ecstatic and proud. Luci has already been placed with her veteran (love at first sight, said Jerry), and Olivia continues her training with Jerry until her veteran has completed the necessary paperwork.
Can there be a more important or noble purpose for a dog?
As for Jerry Lyda, I am humbled by his dedication and vision. The man radiates kindness – it hovers around him like morning mist over a mountain pond.
No wonder dogs love him.
For more information about Veterans K9 Solutions, go to www.veteransk9solutions.org.
FOTAS volunteers work with the Aiken County Animal Shelter, 333 Wire Road. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.fotasaiken.org.
Aiken County Animal Shelter “By the Numbers”
January through April 2014
Received: 733 dogs, 355 cats, total 1088
Adopted/transferred: 521 dogs, 51 cats, 572 total
Euthanized: 308 dogs, 308 cats, 616 total