Service dog leads Navy Veteran to independence



Christina Collins with service dogThis week, Aug. 6 – 12, is recognized as International Assistance Dog Week—acknowledging all the hardworking paws that help men and women live beyond their disability related limitations. These animals are particularly important to Veterans who suffer from service-related injuries and who now rely on service dogs to help them navigate tasks both big and small in their daily lives.

Christina Collins served as a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman attached to the Fleet Marine Force. While in Alaska on a joint operation, Collins suffered a concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The damage to her brain caused epileptic seizures, leading to the eventual loss of her sight. In 2012, Collins was diagnosed as legally blind.

“It’s hard to explain what I can still see, but it’s something like looking through several layers of wax paper or frosted glass,” said Collins. “I know something is there, and I can see if something is moving, but I can’t tell what I’m looking at.”

These last three years, Collins has had a new partner in her journey—Justice, a female black lab. Through the Charleston VA Medical Center’s Visual Impairment Services Team, Collins attended the Leader Dogs for the Blind School in Rochester Hills, Michigan, one of the top guide programs in the world. It was there where Collins and Justice were paired together. The two spent one month in training, learning hand signals and commands; Collins also learned about proper care for the dog.

“Before going to the school, I had to learn how to use a cane. I had to be proficient.” said Collins. “Lee Stoughton. a former blind rehab outpatient specialist at the Charleston VA, had to film me crossing a four-lane highway by myself to send to the school. That’s how they could see my pace and timing so they knew what dog to pair me with. I also needed an assertive dog because I travel internationally. That’s how I got paired with Justice.”

After the month-long training, Collins and Justice had one final task to complete to graduate from the Leader Dogs school. They, along with the others in their class, where dropped off about a mile and a half from the school. Equipped with just her voice activated GPS and new service dog, she had to make her way back to the school.

“During our training, Justice was also taught to disobey for safety,” explained Collins. “For example, if I’m crossing the street and don’t hear a car because it’s one of those new quiet ones and I command her to cross the street, she’s taught to disobey that command to protect me. After a while the dog knows your habits. It’s a trust thing. I trust her with my life.”

They graduated!

Thanks to Justice, Collins can live alone, go to a grocery store within walking distance and, maybe most importantly to this duo, navigate airports. Since being paired together three years ago, Collins and Justice have traveled the world including more than 30 flights, a cruise and at least seven countries.

“We were able to go from the Charleston airport all the way to Morocco by ourselves,” Collins beamed proudly. “She gives me the confidence I need—the independence and freedom. These dogs become part of you. She’s always on my left arm. She’s always with me.”

To help educate others in the community on the importance of service dogs, Collins volunteers at local schools and Veteran Service Organizations. With Justice in tow, she shares her experience and emphasizes how important these working dogs are for those with physical limitations.

“I wanted to give something back because Justice has given me so much.”

Author

Erin Curran

Erin Curran is public affairs specialist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. She has been with the VA for three and a half years and is passionate about sharing Veterans’ stories that highlight the strength of these national heroes.

Comments

  1. Darrel Wesenberg    

    We are thankful that my son is not blind, his illness causes tremors & his medications causes tremors. Our not 12 1/2 year old Golden Retriever has become his non certified therapy dog. As our Abby puppy is aging, we know that the time will come when we will need to be looking for another Therapy Dog. No one can tell us how V.A can help us find a replacement & train a replacement for our beloved Abby to help my son. We only know that that our Abby has learned to stop our son’s tremors & it is wonderful. Abby is our 2nd Golden Retriever. If we had known how wonderful Golden Retrievers were our 1st fur baby would have been a Golden decades ago before my son was born.
    We would appreciate any help & advice you can give us on sources we will need when we need to find a replacement for our Abby my son’s non certified Therapy dog who stops my son’s tremors.
    Thank you,
    Catherine Wesenberg, Mother of Darrel Wesenberg
    Do to stiffness in his hands, Darrel no longer uses the computer of plays the violin.

  2. Adrian D. Thomas    

    I wish the VA in N. Little Rock Arkansas had a program to help veterans pair with service dogs. I believe a service dog would make my life normal again.

    Iraqi Vet
    Adrian Thomas.

    1. kelly woodring    

      YOUR WORDS BROUGHT TEARS TO MY 73 YR OLD EYES AND I AM PROUD I CAN STILL CRY FOR OTHERS. YOUR STORY AND OTHERS MUST BE MADE PUBLIC SO ALL CAN SEE YOUR NEEDS! I AM TOTALLY ON SOCIAL SECURITY ALSO HELPING MY 48 Yr OLD DAUGHTER WITH MS SO MY AID WILL BE MINIMAL NOT BY CHOICE BUT BY FACT. BEST OF LUCK AND SUCCESSFUL SEARCH FOR YOUR REPLACEMENT FUR BABY WHEN TIME IS RIGHT. HAVE YOU GIVEN THOUGHT TO “GOFUNDME.COM” ? Let me know how/where I can help!!

    2. Deborah    

      Sadly, the VA recently made a decision to no longer allow their mental health professionals authorize therapy animals. I had one a few years ago and he died. My VA “shrink” wrote my authorization for Charlie as a help with my depression. Charlie passed in 2012. It wasn’t till this year that I got another dog and boy, was I surprised when my “shrink” told me he couldn’t do the paperwork any more.

      I had to search for therapists in town and at $165 an hour, I was ticked.

  3. Diana    

    Call 1-855-948-2311. New hotline to help Vets get answers quickly. Came on line June 2017. Call it, it works and you will get your answers CPT B.

  4. David Sadler    

    Your local va hospital business office should be able to help you. If they don’t, I would recommend that you go to your local DAV and ask for help. I can not say enough about the DAV but I will say most of if not all of the service officers really care about veterans. God bless and I hope and pray that this may help you.

    David Sadler
    US Navy/USAFR Retired

  5. Margaret Randle    

    Have you tried contacting DAV or the other paramilitary organizations? Have you tried contacting golden retriever rescue groups?

  6. David Laws    

    This is GUIDE DOG, not a SERVICE Dog. There is a remarkable difference. Although her GD acts as an SD (in addition to her duties as GD) an SD is not a GUIDE DOG! There are several program through the US (and the world) that train GD’s, most notable Seeing Eye in NJ. I know this because I am the human half of an SD team.

    The VA is stifling Veterans that could certainly use SD (for PTSD among others issues) because IAD (International Assistance Dogs) a NON USA based organization, refuses to recognize the use and presence of Psychiatric Service Dogs. There is ample proof that a properly trained (OWNER Trained preferably) PSD is of overwhelming benefit to most people that suffer from PTSD issues. BUT IAD has the VA in their back pocket and the VA accordingly refuses to listen to any advice, studies or evidence that would contradict IAD and their agenda.

  7. Linda Thornton    

    This is an excellent article. I am a 100% disabled veteran with a service dog. Her name is Siena, she is a 6 years old Golden Retriever. I have had her since she was 8 weeks old, then I hired a service dog trainer because there was no support for me at that time. It is heart warming to see that times have changed and there is a support system in place. Keep up the good work.
    This is a job ell done.
    Dr. Linda Thornton
    LtCol./USArmy Retired

  8. Michele Barker    

    I am curious, as to how she is using SpaceA. 100% P&T Disabled Veterans are NOT authorized.This is Extremely unfair as we gave our Health and our Careers to the USA. Senate Bill 2596 was placed into The Senate Arms Committee Feb 2016, and I figure its Buried, unless Veterans Groups Start putting more pressure on Congress. SpaceA is part of MWR, and Can have Extreme Mental and Emotional Benefits to those of us, whom are 100% Service Connected. Aside from the fact that we are “Medically” Retired, we are yet to be given all Retirement Benefit, until this change to Title 10, by Congress is Passed.

    https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/2596/all-info

    Fighting for all Veterans to have Equal Benefits.
    M.Barker USAF Medically Ret.

    1. Christina Collins    

      I am not using space a travel in anyway I do not qualify for it I am paying for all travel out of my own pocket

  9. James Kamen    

    I would like to know more information about traveling with a Service Dog internationally. I heard that there is a passport for dogs in Europe I think,but I would like to travel to Latin America. And how have service dogs been accepted in other countries. Any help is appreciated.

    1. Christina Collins    

      I am not using space a travel I am paying for my own travel the article does not say that I am using that it’s only saying that I am traveling

  10. Mary K. Porto    

    I have a dog that was given to me, from another Vet. He is a treasure. When I asked the Veteran who trained him, he said he did. And he is wonderful and he is registered. I on the other hand am not trained. Where should I go to reinforce his training?

  11. Jessie Wilson    

    I am in need of some information on service dogs my self!! I am shocked that nobody in any of the service organizations dont know anything about it?? I am a 100% disabled vet, I have waited for 2 yrs. a friend of mine a Marine breeds Belgium and Dutch shepherds, I purchase 2 of them from him and have been working with them myself!! I have asked every organization I know of?? the VFW, DAV, and the VA, nobody seems to know??? I am very confused my self, would someone please who has any knowledge of a place close to me ?? I live in Tulsa Oklahoma, please let me know!!! (email and phone number redacated)

  12. ESSAM HELMY    

    There are many gifts and blessings from God. One of the many gifts are the service dogs.
    In my own experience working with students with special needs, I know for a fact that the service dogs improve the quality of life and the daily living.
    I would imagine and I do believe that service dogs provide healing , emotional support , and companionship after the Vetrans go through and experience difficulties , they need a compationate companion like the service dogs. For the physical as well as the mental healing.
    Who knows .. They might want to serve our country again if they deemed able and willing.

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