Sophie is a lab/beagle mix who sits silently between her master’s legs with her head in his lap as he continuously strokes her from his wheelchair. Sophie is not just enjoying a pat on the head — she is working, her keen senses alerting to her master’s growing anxiety.
In training as a service dog with Big Paws Canine Academy and Foundation for the last year, Sophie has been a Godsend to 66-year-old Steve Waugh of Conway.
A Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm Marine Corps and Army Reserve veteran, Waugh suffered a traumatic brain injury in the early ’90s. Just back from the Gulf War and while strapping down equipment on top of a military truck, a strap broke causing him to fall. He has since had a couple of strokes that left him unsteady on his legs. Today, unable to walk long distances, he uses a wheelchair and scooter for mobility. When he does walk, however, Sophie is by his side every step of the way making sure her master is okay.
In 2011, Steve Waugh and his wife, Saundra, were traveling along a Conway road when a pup ran in front of their vehicle. When they stopped to check on the situation, some people ran out from a nearby house, shouting.
“They thought we hit her,” Saundra said. “They said, ‘Oh good, you hit her.’”
The Waughs were appalled. They picked up the 4-month-old pup, which was wearing a collar but had no identification.
“We advertised all along the beach and everywhere to find her owner,” Saundra said. However, their actions were to no avail and the pup soon became part of the Waugh family.
To the average person, it would appear that the Waughs rescued the pup they named Sophie. However, Steve Waugh has a different take on the roadside rescue.
“God sent her to me for a lot of reasons and she is why I am still alive,” he said. “She does take care of me. When I have anxiety and panic attacks, she lays on me and comforts me.”
Training at Big Paws
Although Sophie was already a great comfort to Steve Waugh as a pet, he was hoping she would qualify for training as a service dog. He began his search for help that ended with Saundra spotting a truck with the Big Paws logo and website on it. Saundra took a photo and they got in touch with Steve Slavick, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit, at the East Coast location in Aynor to see if he would evaluate Sophie to determine if she was appropriate for training.
Through investigating Big Paws, the couple learned there are three Big Paws locations that also include a Midwest location in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a West coast location in Mira Loma, Calif.
Slavick, also a disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, was working as a police officer and certified canine agitator performing basic obedience training with law enforcement dogs in California when his partner, Chris Guerrero, had a stroke on duty.
“He was in the hospital for 10 months and went to a nursing home to die,” Slavick said.
Slavick started taking his pet, Nitro, to the nursing home to see Guerrero and the therapy seemed to work.
“I saw Chris get the fight back in his eyes. From there I started working with that facility letting Nitro see other patients. That’s when we knew there was a need,” Slavick said.
Guerrero eventually recovered enough to live on his own with his own service dog, Opie, Slavick said.
Moving from the therapy dog business to service dog training, Slavick’s work grew beyond California to South Dakota and eventually to Horry County when his disability forced him to retire in 2014. Today, his program is recognized by the Veterans Administration to train “Battle Buddies” for recipients who can count on the dogs’ service for 10 to 15 years.
For Waugh, Slavick began the process of first determining if he qualified as a disabled military veteran, or former law enforcement officer or first responder. He said the vetting of the disability goes through the doctor but he (and directors at the other two Big Paws locations) performs a one-on-one interview with the individual seeking to get a service dog or seeking training for their own dog.
Once the vetting is complete, Slavick checks the home environment to see if it is conducive to having a service dog. With Sophie already a pet, Slavick had to determine if she was strong enough and had the right personality to train as a service dog.
“We look for any signs of aggression and give them a sort of college aptitude test to see what they know about obedience,” Slavick said. Step one: will they walk on a leash. If the dog passes the tests, the training begins with what they need to teach the dog to serve its master.
Slavick tries to use rescue animals from no kill shelters but the animals must be “load bearing” and cannot have hip dysplasia or displacement, and it depends on what the dog is pre-dispositioned to and its demeanor. The dog should be friendly but not overly friendly. Slavick is also 100 percent against using any type of cruelty in training a dog, so it is important the animal be selected carefully.
“There’s an emotional investment in a dog and we don’t want to waste man hours because the veterans do not pay for the training. They pay only $1 a month as a member of the Foundation,” Slavick said. So, the “totality of serviceability” of each animal is very important.
Slavick uses Diesel, his trained English yellow lab, to help him get away from daytime flashbacks and nighttime dreams of drowning. A Marine in Operation Desert Storm, Slavick was also a Marine recruiter in New York City during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Compression injuries have left him in pain and, like Steve Waugh, in need of using a scooter for mobility.
“Diesel will part the Red Sea for me,” Slavick said. When Diesel senses Slavick’s growing pain level, he will literally walk Slavick to a bench or seat. Diesel can also help Slavick pick up dropped items.
Slavick also uses Boom, an American black lab diabetic alert dog to assist his wife. Boom is training to work with his nose and paws to turn on and off light switches without putting his paws on the wall. He also uses his nose to alert to a drastic drop in blood sugar.
When in training, the dogs wear vests that say “no petting.” They know when the vests go on it is time to work. The Waughs’ dog, Sophie, has learned when her vest is on, it is time to turn from a house pet to a working dog, very alert to her surroundings.
“When Steve goes into the closet and puts her vest on, she ignores me,” Saundra Waugh said. “She is ready to work.”
Research into service dog value to veterans
In the three Big Paws locations, there are 106 individuals who have received trained dogs or training for their own dogs. Eight of those are in Horry County, not including Slavicks’ two dogs. He has six more applications from individuals seeking help. While all locations operating with an all-volunteer staff, fundraising is critical to provide the training and resources at no cost to the members.
Slavick’s work has also proven valuable to researchers looking at the value of service dogs to veterans.
Cheryl Krause-Parello, PhD, of the University of Colorado in Denver’s College of Nursing, has been conducting research on human-animal interaction and stress, particularly relating to military veterans. Krause-Parello is the director of Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors, a health research initiative for veterans. Through her work, she has almost completed for peer review a study “Military Veterans and Service Dogs: A Qualitative Inquiry Using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis.”
This study includes interviews with military veterans in both Colorado and those who have service dogs trained through the South Dakota location of Big Paws Canine. Krause-Parello said after spending a few days in South Dakota and through “open-ended dialogue,” she was able to obtain information about service dogs, costs involved and what the animals mean to the veterans.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for us and a very good reciprocal experience,” she said in a phone interview. “The veterans were excited to give their voice to the project.”
Krause-Parello’s ultimate goal is to provide evidence to support public policy changes so that service dogs would be covered as a reimbursable medical expense for military veterans and others recovering from the effects of PTSD.
Steve Waugh is living proof that a service dog offers great value to a veteran with PTSD. He has some advice for other veterans.
“A lot of veterans should have a service dog because it is a comfort they give you. They naturally respond,” he said.
His wife added, “Dogs have so much compassion and love in them naturally.”
“I don’t know what I would do without her (Sophie),” Steve Waugh said.
Angela Nicholas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help Big Paws Canine
WHAT | Chili Cook Off Fundraiser
WHEN | 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 7
WHERE | Aynor Town Park
COST | $5 to taste and vote
CONTACT | Kathy Maupin (843) 399-2939