Stephanie Francis could tell when her husband -- an Army veteran who served three tours of duty, two in the Middle East -- was grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d sit on the couch inside their Washington, D.C., home or go for a run, withdrawing himself from the world around him.
In just a few months though, that’s changed. Now, when her husband’s mood starts to shift, his service dog, Six, will gently nudge him, put his head on his lap or lick his face, and he can’t hold back his smile.
“He’s happy again,” Francis, 29, said of her husband, whose name could not be disclosed because of the nature of his active duty assignment. “That dog is such a blessing.”
Guardians of Rescue, a nonprofit animal rescue group based in Smithtown, placed Six with the couple in mid-July. Working with its partner shelter, Port Jefferson Station’s Save-a-Pet Animal Rescue and Adoption Center, GoR trains rescued dogs to become service companions for veterans in need through its Paws of War program.
When Dori Scofield, founder and president of Save-a-Pet and vice president of GoR, first met Six, a 50-pound male pit bull mix, she knew he had the potential to be a service dog.
“I don’t pick breed, I pick personality,” said Scofield, 52, of Stony Brook, who trained Six. “He had the best personality.”
Six was friendly with other people, other dogs and cats. He wasn’t hyper or aggressive, and he responded well to training, Scofield said. He also was a natural nudger, something that Scofield says she looks for when trying to find a companion dog for a veteran with PTSD.
“When somebody is down, it’s a great thing to have dog nudge them and say, ‘We’re not going to be down, we’re going to get up and go for a walk,’” she said.
Scofield said Six was named after the military phrase,” I got your six,” which means “I got your back.”
Francis said the dog definitely has her husband’s back.
Six has been trained to get his companion out of bed every morning. Francis said her husband has taken Six on outings to the local ice cream parlor and long walks through downtown D.C.
Although Six’s demeanor is jovial, the marks on his body shed light on the traumatic start he had in life. He has scars all over and the skin on his paws is raw. Scofield said it appears as if he was used as bait in a dogfighting ring and burned with acid. He was found left for dead in Georgia and brought to a local shelter there, where he stayed for a year until he was rescued and relocated to Long Island.
“I can’t imagine anyone doing to that to an animal, especially to one as sweet and loving as Six,” said Francis, adding that her husband rubs lotion on the dog’s sensitive paws every night. “He’s had a horrible life, but he’s just so happy to be loved.”
Right now, the couple is missing their four-legged friend. While playing fetch in the backyard in early August, Six fell to the ground and started yelping. An X-ray revealed that Six had been suffering from a congenital condition in his left elbow called ununited anconeal process.
Veterinarian Allan Carb, of New York Veterinary Specialty Center in Farmingdale, said a piece of bone that should have fused into Six’s ulna by the time he was 5 months old was floating around in his joint, causing instability and arthritis.
Carb operated on Six Tuesday, removing the loose bone and some arthritic tissue. Although he expects Six to make a full recovery, he said the dog will always have some degree of a limp. Six is recuperating at Scofield’s home until Carb clears him to return to the Francis family.
Although Carb performed the surgery at a discounted rate, GoR, which relies completely on donations to fund its work, still needs to raise $3,000 to pay the bill. Donations can be made at guardiansofrescue.org.
“We just can’t wait to get him back,” Francis said. “That little dog brings so much joy into our house.”