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Hugo’s new role: How one very good boy is supporting a veteran in need

For nearly five months in 2021, 5-year-old Hugo was a familiar face at the Dumb Friends League, coming in and out of our doors more than once. The energetic and playful pup – known as one of our “longest stay” dogs – met many potential families along the way and even went home with one. But something was missing. It seemed fate had another person for Hugo to meet and another role for him to fill.

When Hugo first arrived at the League, he exhibited behaviors consistent with separation anxiety. He was not a fan of being left alone – so much so that he figured out how to open kennel doors all by himself! However, our staff saw real potential in this clever dog and worked with him through the League’s K9 Courage Program. Over time, our compassionate behavior team was able to help Hugo redirect his anxious energy through positive reinforcement training. But, it was clear that he would need just the right person to provide him with the extra attention he needed.

One day in September, the perfect person entered Hugo’s life. “It was love at first sight for me … I was immediately smitten,” said his soon-to-be adopter (whose name will be kept private for this story). Clearly, the feeling was mutual. “Hugo laid down at my feet. He chose me!” the adopter recalled. As a former Special Forces Services Member, Hugo’s new adopter spent 10 years serving bravely in the United States Army. Shortly after graduating high school, he enlisted and soon found himself in the unfamiliar territory and turmoil of Operation Desert Storm.

As a combat engineer, his primary responsibility was to prepare military staging areas by eliminating potential threats, including sweeping for landmines and searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). According to the veteran, when he and his team were assigned to a mission, they were often the first soldiers in and the last soldiers out. After nine months of harrowing work on the front lines, he applied to the Special Forces and was eventually promoted to E-5 Sergeant. But the impact of serving in such perilous conditions – not to mention witnessing and experiencing the atrocities of combat – was already having a lasting effect.

Like so many service members and veterans, Hugo’s adopter was coping with one of the most common (and too often, invisible) wounds of war – post-traumatic stress. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that, in a given year, 12 out of every 100 veterans who served in Operation Desert Storm have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clinical symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event(s) through flashbacks or nightmares
  • Memory loss
  • Hyperarousal, such as continuously being on high alert or startling easily
  • Avoidance of social situations, emotional connection, or places reminiscent of the trauma experience(s)

Increasingly, studies suggest that animals can positively impact the well-being of veterans living with PTSD. A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine found that veterans with a service dog (or a dog who is trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability) had significantly lower PTSD symptoms when compared to those without a service dog. Encouragingly, this research also found that veterans with a service dog experienced lower depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

These findings may not seem altogether surprising. After all, dogs are famous for raising our spirits, easing our woes, and bringing us together. However, the data collected in this rigorous research played a critical role in expanding and improving the services that veterans can now receive. In August, President Biden signed the bipartisan Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act (or PAWS Act), which will increase the availability of service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

When Hugo’s adopter came to the Dumb Friends League, he too was seeking a true companion who could offer the emotional safety and support he needed after struggling to cope with the aftermath of trauma. “Hugo saved me,” he said. “We are doing very well and have created an unbreakable and inseparable bond.” In fact, Hugo is now registered as an emotional support animal (or ESA), which differs from a service animal in that his primary role is to provide his adopter with comfort and companionship. While the sweet, task-oriented pup takes his important job seriously, he is not held to the same standards as service animals. Instead, he spends his days in his comfort zone – close to his new companion, offering and receiving the supportive care they both need.

“I can’t express in words my gratitude for your time, effort, and the services you provide at [the Dumb Friends League],” the veteran said in a recent email to the League. “I’m very much looking forward to a long and loving companionship with Hugo.”

The Dumb Friends League wishes to thank the veteran who adopted Hugo for his heroic service and for giving this amazing dog the loving home he deserves. In addition to serving in Operation Desert Storm, Hugo’s adopter also took part in Operation Restore Hope, a humanitarian mission in Somalia. He is the proud recipient of the Valorous Unit Award and two Bronze Stars.

With gratitude and appreciation, the Dumb Friends League honors those who have bravely served our country. From Nov. 8-12, the League will open an hour early and waive the adoption fees for all veterans and active military. Thank you for your service, sacrifice, and dedication.

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