Service Dog: An Idaho Army Veteran Works To Help Others Find Therapy Dogs

May 30, 2013

This week we've been bringing you the story of Idaho Army veteran Dan Sperry and his service dog Awescar.  This large labradoodle has had a major role in helping Dan cope with post traumatic stress disorder.

In the three years since Dan got Awescar, a lot has changed.  “So now I have a life,” says Dan.

Dan sits comfortably in his living room as we talk.  He no longer fidgets, he’s more relaxed and confident.  His service dog sprawls out on the floor next to the kitchen table. “It’s amazing what a white dog can do.”

This large labradoodle helps Dan cope with post traumatic stress disorder or P.T.S.D.  Before Awescar, Dan was isolated, rarely leaving the house.  Now he’s going out every day, to take Awescar for a swim in a nearby creek.  Sometimes the two of them go up to the gas station so Dan can get a soda.  When people ask to pet Awescar, Dan isn’t afraid or nervous, instead he strikes up a conversation, happy to talk about his dog. “It’s nice to be part of society again.”

Dan and Awescar out for a ride.
Credit Angie Sperry

While Dan has been learning to live a life outside the military, Awescar has been learning too.  His training never stops and Dan and his wife Angie work with him every day. 

The last time we talked, they were teaching Awescar the Lassie Command.  Remember the TV show Lassie where they sent the dog to go find Timmy?  Dan tells Awescar to go touch Angie.  “When Dan sends him looking for me,” says Angie, “he will race around the house and sniff and listen until he finds me and he will come up and bump me with his nose.”

Dan still has his bad days.  After his tour in Desert Storm, Dan came home with ferocious headaches that cause him to fall down.  He often ends up with concussions.  Dan’s P.T.S.D. still triggers flashbacks, panic attacks, and anxiety.  “It’s been 21 years since I was in the service, but when I close my eyes at night, I can be right there.”

Dan doesn’t like to talk about his time in an artillery unit in the Persian Gulf war.  “People have no idea the steps that a soldier has to take to be able to flip that safety off on the M16 and pull that trigger.  That’s something every soldier has to make personally, inside, and as soon as you do that, you’re never the same again, ever, there’s no going back.”

But Dan says he would go back to the military.  He misses his buddies, the camaraderie, being part of a society where everybody understands each other and he fit in.  “The call to serve never goes away, it does for some guys but, for the guys that doesn’t it’s hard, it’s hard to be out here.  I got to a point where I loved the military more than I loved my wife and I realized I needed to make a choice and I chose her but there still isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t regret not staying in the military.”

Angie says in the Army, everything Dan did was to help and protect his fellow soldiers.  She says he needs a higher purpose to focus on. “Every soldier needs a mission, regardless of if they are still in the military or if they’re not, that’s so ingrained in them.”

Awescar on the job, helping Dan at a recent event.
Credit Angie Sperry

So Dan has become a sort of service dog ambassador.  Now that he has Awescar, he’s spreading the word about how trained dogs can help soldiers in need.  “I told myself I wasn’t going to squander this gift. I’m not going to rest until every veteran that needs a service dog gets a service dog.”

He speaks to large groups, telling Awescar’s story, and he encourages people to donate their time or money to soldiers who need service dogs.  And he tells his story about what he goes through every day.  “That’s my mission now, to bring awareness about P.T.S.D. that it is a very, very serious and can be very debilitating condition.”

Since Dan got Awescar, he’s run into a few stores that refused service because he was with a dog.  He’s tried to educate them that service dogs are allowed anywhere he goes.  Dan hopes that education will spread and help the next veteran with a service dog that tries to enter.

Dan Sperry calmly stands up from his kitchen table, and starts wrestling with Awescar. “What do you think buddy?  What do you think with that crazy tail?  Where did you get that crazy tail, huh?  That’s a crazy tail.”

Angie watches the two of them play, aware of the difference Awescar has made in their lives.  “It feels so good to have someone I love so much, get his life back.”

Dan and Angie Sperry and Awescar the service dog
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

You can hear part 1 of our series Service Dog here.

You can hear part 2 of our series Service Dog here.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio