Stiggys Dogs: For Stiggy

Tom Jones and Baxter
Christopher Buillion and
Christopher Buillion and
Retired-Marine Corporal Christopher Buillion and Eddy. Stiggys Dogs is a 501(c)(3) organization that rescues and trains shelter dogs to be psychiatric service dogs for military veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) or Traumatic Brain Injury (“TBI”). The psychiatric service dogs are trained and deployed at no cost to the veteran. | Photo: Stiggys Dogs | Link | Dog, Veteran, Ptsd, War, Medicine, Military,

Rescuing One to Rescue Another

To Jennifer Petre, Founder and Director of the Michigan-based Stiggy’s Dogs, a nonprofit organization which rescues and trains shelter dogs to be psychiatric service dogs (PSD) for military Veterans on their journey towards healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), at no cost to the Veteran, “We are a family.” Family is the foundation of Stiggy’s Dogs, as Petre established Stiggy’s Dogs to honor her nephew, HM3 Benjamin Phillip (“Doc Stiggy”) Castiglione. HM3 Castiglione was killed in the Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan, on September 3, 2009 during a ground mission, he chose to take; he was only 21-years-old.

“Doc Stiggy:” An Inspiration, and a Legacy

Petre fondly recalls, HM3 Castiglione was a Marine corpsman, or medic. In the Marines, everyone is given a nickname; Castiglione was difficult to say, where his Marine buddies affectionately called him, “Doc Stiggy.” HM3 Castiglione was funny, gregarious, joyful, and loving, who cared about everyone. Petre comments, “I have never known someone to have so many best friends,” as many of HM3 Castiglione’s friends all felt he was their best friend.

HM3 Castiglione had loved all animals, and often stayed with Petre and her family, which always included dogs. Petre and her family had a running joke: “if there was a dog around, you could find Ben rubbing the dog’s ears!” as HM3 Castiglione would often rub his dog’s ears as a stress reliever. HM3 Castiglione loved the military and what he did; one reason Petre felt it was important to continue HM3 Castiglione’s mission: helping people and saving lives. To Petre, HM3 Castiglione remains a caring, “educated, respectful young man.”

Stiggy’s Dogs’ mission is “Rescuing One to Rescue Another,” where this partnership enriches the lives of both the Veterans and the dogs. The shelter/rescue dogs have been displaced, losing the foundation of love, security, and trust. In being paired with the Veteran, the dog regains that foundation, and also has a job to do. For the Veterans, they regain their “battle buddy,” the person who was always with them to keep them safe while deployed, in potential harm. The Veterans also appreciate that these dogs have been rescued and given a second chance, often seeing themselves reflected in the dog: having, perhaps, a traumatic past. The partnership allows the Veteran and the dog to have a fresh start, starting their lives together.

Petre felt it was important train shelter and rescue dogs, from her past, working at a humane society. It broke her heart to see so many good dogs go through the shelter system, many of whom, euthanized, something “unacceptable to me.” In training rescue dogs, it allowed Petre to combine her goals of continuing HM3 Castiglione’s mission of helping people, and to spotlight the many wonderful dogs, with the potential to be a great service dog.

Building a Partnership

Petre stresses, the initial process begins with an interview with the Veteran to determine his/her needs and lifestyle. For example, the Veteran will be asked if he/she has children (if so, how many and what ages) what his/her hobbies are, what he/she enjoy doing, will he/she be going back to school, etc.; certain breeds of dogs are better suited for certain lifestyles. If the Veteran has an active lifestyle, his/her service dog must have the energy to sustain working for a longer period of time (shepherds or collies would be appropriate); if the Veteran has physical disabilities, he/she may prefer a laid-back lifestyle, where a breed of dog with a calmer temperament would be appropriate.

Petre gives an example of the process: Stiggy’s Dogs interviewed with a Veteran with a TBI, who had balance issues. Stiggy’s Dogs determined that a larger dog, approximately 120-pound dog in this instance, was appropriate. Stiggy’s Dogs then called the shelters and rescues which it works with, in search of the dog who met the needs of the Veteran. The Veteran and dog meet, and hopefully a connection is made, a connection that is established instantaneously, as demonstrated by Army Sergeant Adam Manganello, a Purple Heart recipient, and his partner, Diamond, rescued from the Livingston County Animal Control. Stiggy’s Dogs trained many wonderful dogs from this rescue, including terrier-mix Diamond, “a little diamond in the rough.” Retired-Sergeant Manganello originally wanted a larger dog (Diamond was approximately 35 pounds), where Petre suggested Retired-Sergeant Manganello meet with her, with no pressure or commitment. “It was love at first sight.” Diamond went right up to Retired-Sergeant Manganello and wouldn’t leave him, “it was very, very sweet.”

After that connection has been made, the pair goes home to begin the bonding process. Throughout the training process, a duration of six months to a year, the Veteran remains in constant communication with Stiggy’s Dogs, speaking with the organization once a day, and visiting the organization once a week. Petre highly recommends Veterans apply right away, as Stiggy’s Dogs currently has an approximate two-and-a-half-year waiting list.

The application process begins online, through the Stiggy’s Dogs website.

The training is individualistic for each Veteran, as each Veteran’s needs are different. Generally, the dogs can sense a change in chemistry within the Veteran, and can help to mitigate the issue. The dogs who help Veterans with PTSD are trained to look for exit signs when the dog has noticed anxiety in the Veteran; the dog’s job is to get the Veteran out of the situation. The dogs are trained to wake the Veteran from nightmares, night terrors, and day terrors, whether physically, or turning on the light. The dog can turn on the light to wake the Veteran amidst his/her nightmare, and bring him/her back, as he/she realizes he/she is safe; then the dog turns the light off, and the Veteran resumes sleep. The dog can physically wake the Veteran by nudging the Veteran, or licking his/her face. The goal is to bring the Veteran back to the present, where he/she knows he/she is safe. Other ways the service dog helps is to remind the Veteran to take any medications, and acting as a barrier between the Veteran and other people (as Veterans with PTSD and/or TBI generally do not like crowds) when out in public.

Service dogs helping Veterans with TBI are generally trained to perform the same tasks as for those helping Veterans with PTSD. Service dogs helping Veterans with TBI may be trained to anticipate any balance issues, such as being prepared for the Veteran to lean on him/her when the Veteran feels dizzy, as well as trained to pick up and retrieve items for the Veteran.

The training process begins with basic commands for the dog, a duration of approximately six to eight weeks; then the dog take the Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) test, a 10-step test which demonstrates the dog’s good manners as a member of the community. Once the dog passes the CGC test, the dog then trains with his/her Veteran, where together, they venture on outings, allowing for the Veteran to gain comfort and confidence in being in public places, with the assistance of his/her service dog. The partners venture to smaller venues, such as car washes, then advances to larger venues, such as a restaurant, then a larger restaurant; a store, then a larger retail store; then perhaps, a stadium; these outings will take a duration of three to six months. The next step in training will be the individualized training for the tasks the Veterans may need assistance with, such as the dog waking the Veteran, turning the lights on and off. A standard public service test is taken, then the partners are certified. The partners will return to Stiggy’s Dogs each year to recertify, to ensure that the partnership is doing well. Stiggy’s Dog will ask the Veteran to have a goal in mind, such as going to the movie theater to see a movie, going to a ballgame, even a concert. These were things the Veteran thought he/she may never be able to do, but now have the capability, with the accompaniment of his/her service dog.

Saving Lives and Changing Lives

As Petre observes, having a service dog is life changing and life saving. A Veteran healing from PTSD and/or TBI often feels isolated, where having the unconditional love from their service dog, not only gives them a sense of purpose, but also they learn to trust. It is a huge step for a Veteran to take to reintegrate into the civilian world, and to trust. A memorable story to Petre includes a Veteran, who is a father of two young children; he had not left his house for approximately two years. After eight months of training with Stiggy’s Dogs, the Veteran now coaches at baseball games, and is involved with his daughter’s kindergarten class. “They got a father back.”

At least two Veterans with the Stiggy’s Dogs organization have stated they would not be here, if they did not have their service dog. One Veteran was Marine Corporal Christopher Bullion, who credited his partner, a German Shepherd named Eddy (rescued from the Michigan Humane Society) in saving his life. Petre received a 3:00 AM email from Retired-Corporal Buillion’s mother, as Petre responded immediately; Retired-Corporal Buillion had recently returned home and his mother was concerned about him. Eddy, at that time, was heartworm-positive, which placed him on the euthanization list; a family believed in Eddy, knowing he would be a great service dog, and agreed to foster him during his three-month heartworm treatment. Petre considered this pairing fate, as she received the email the day Eddy was finished with his heartworm treatment; the two met three days later, and have been together since 2013.

Petre observes, the service dog changes and enriches the Veteran’s life, in helping them to transition in civilian life; military culture is vastly different from the civilian world. The results are astonishing, as many Veterans return to school, now able to walk into a classroom with their service dog, some start their own businesses, many are able to return to “normal” lives. Petre observes, “Things that seem normal to us, but not for them, without that dog.” The Veteran can also talk to the dog, as the dog is never judgmental. In addition, there is a prevalence of TBIs with these latter wars, with the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), resulting in Veterans losing their eye sight or hearing; the service dog becomes the Veterans eyes and ears.

Pairings can seem serendipitous, as illustrated by Army Specialist Tom Jones and his partner, Baxter. Baxter had ear allergies, and could not be accepted into the Leader Dog for the Blind program. As Baxter’s trainers, they had the option of where Baxter could go; they contacted Stiggy’s Dog, knowing he had great potential. Retired-Specialist Jones, a father of two small children and a new infant, had just entered the program. To Petre, it was serendipitous, having Baxter, raised since he was a puppy to be a service dog, exposed to lots of things, who could be paired with Retired-Army Specialist Jones; he now owns a Veteran organization and Michigan Freedom Outdoors, where he guides Veterans on hunting and fishing trips, crediting Baxter for the ability to accomplish this. To Petre, this partnership was a “great success story, we love seeing that… he’s a whole new guy, it’s awesome,” all within six months of being paired. Baxter was the first dog accepted into Stiggy’s Dogs from the Leader Dog for the Blind program.

Stiggy’s Dogs focuses their training for PSDs, although some Veterans just want a companion dog; or an emotional support/therapy dog to perhaps accompany them for doctor’s appointment or therapy appointment; at times, the emotional support/therapy dog can provide comfort to other Veterans waiting for their appointments. The difference between the emotional support/therapy dogs and PSDs is that the PSDs are permitted entry to public places with their handlers, whereas the emotional support/therapy dogs are not. The service dog can enter hospitals and VA hospitals, where the dog can also help other Veterans while at the hospital. Petre observes, some Veterans may not need their service dogs to accompany them in public after a while; five Veterans, whom Stiggy’s Dogs have worked with, have gained independence, Stiggy’s Dog’s ultimate goal. The Veterans may still need their battle buddy at home, perhaps to do perimeter checks, and to clear the house, but the dog may not need to accompany his/her Veteran as much, while out in public.

A Labor of Love

To Petre, Stiggy’s Dogs is a labor of love, not only as a tribute to her nephew, but also because the work Stiggy’s Dogs does, “means something to us,” where she and the Stiggy’s Dogs family are available 24 hours, seven days a week, many times taking calls from Veterans at all hours of the day. In her work with service dogs, Petre has also embarked on the legislative side regarding service dogs, such as ensuring Veterans with PTSD who have service dogs, to have the same rights and protections as an individual with disabilities who have a service dog. Petre has been working with Michigan Senator David Knezek (D), one of only two Iraq Veterans in the Michigan state legislature.

According to the Lansing State Journal, Senator Knezek wants a standardized training and licensing for PTSD service dogs, as well as changing Michigan law to provide the same protections for Veterans who use service dog for PTSD and TBI, as an individual who uses a service dog because of a physical disability. Advocates of this law also hope it will address the growing trend of imposters: the selling of service dog vests, people abusing the system, and consequently, ruining the system, with the hope of “not only protect[ing] Veterans and their dogs, but also to put the imposters out of business.” Petre had the opportunity to speak on the Senate floor, a factor in which helped the bill pass the Senate. To Petre, this type of legislation is “a huge step forward,” in providing rights and protections for Veterans with PTSD who have service dogs.

To Petre, Stiggy’s Dogs has “built a community and family,” as Stiggy’s Dogs has an ongoing relationship with each Veteran the organization works with. Often, the Veterans who have worked with Stiggy’s Dogs become friends and become support for one another. Since Michigan does not have a predominant military population (without many military bases based in Michigan), it is important to have this community. Petre is extremely proud to be a part of this organization, it “turned into so much more than I anticipated.”

HM3 Benjamin Phillip (“Doc Stiggy”) Castiglione remains in the hearts of everyone who has had the privilege to have had him in their lives, including his fellow Marine, Corporal Patrick Kittel, who was partnered with a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog-mix, named Stiggy (whom Petre named in tribute to HM3 Castiglione). As Petre recalls, Stiggy, a foster dog, was one of the first “Stiggy’s Dogs,” as she was training Stiggy while HM3 Castiglione was in Afghanistan. Approximately six months later, Retired-Corporal Kittel returned home and wanted a service dog. “It was an honor to pair them together,” as Petre comments; it was an honor for her to pair Retired-Corporal Kittel with Stiggy, and for Retired-Corporal Kittel, it was an honor for him to be paired with Stiggy. With a laugh, Petre observes, it must have been fate, as Retired-Corporal Kittel was from Louisiana! The pair has been together since 2011, where in 2014, Retired-Corporal Kittel was visiting Michigan and had met another Veteran group. Retired-Corporal Kittel is now working with the Veteran group, as a way to help other Veterans.

HM3 Castiglione’s legacy lives on through Stiggy’s Dogs. Through Stiggy’s Dogs, HM3 Castiglione continues to save lives, as Petre can continue his mission: helping people and saving lives: for the Veterans, for Stiggy.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:01 PM EDT | More details


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