Downeast Dog News

Service Dog Strong: People Saving Dogs, Dogs Saving People

By Susan Spisak | Nov 01, 2019
Ashleigh London

Simone Emmons is on a mission. This disabled Army vet founded Service Dog Strong or SDS, Maine’s only 501(c) (3) nonprofit with the purpose of saving shelter canines, raising monies to have them professionally trained and certified as service or emotional support dogs, and pairing them with women and men with traumatic, sexually- and/or rape-related PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) at no cost to them.

She’s just beginning the journey of growing this nonprofit that is available to state residents - not just veterans - whose lives have been torn apart by these hurtful acts. Statistics back the problem. According to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, one in five adult Mainers will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Additionally, 48.6% of adult Maine sexual assault survivors report that they’ve been diagnosed as depressed while 38.3% of adult Maine sexual assault survivors have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

To help those in need, Emmons has armed her nonprofit with not only a board of directors and volunteers but will work in conjunction with a local animal rescue and professional training group. This wife, homemaker, and mother of two toddlers with a third baby on the way said she has the time and desire to make a difference. “It’ll be a huge blessing to rescue a dog and rescue a person with PTSD,” said Emmons, whose past hardships led her to this undertaking.

In 2006 she was an excited and optimistic 20-year-old American ready to serve her country. She enlisted in the Army and began stateside training, but things soon crumbled. “I was violently raped by another soldier.” She said it was so forceful and intense that she suffered from migraines and didn’t realize that she’d sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). She spoke to her commander as she had issues being near the attacker. “Back 10 to 12 years ago, things like that were pushed under the rug.” (Emmons acknowledged that the Army now has programs in place such as Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention aka SHARP to avoid or address incidents and advocate for victims.)

To make matters worse, some soldiers bullied her and told her it was her fault. Eventually she was given an uncharacterized discharge in 2007. Severe depression and anxiety plagued her days. “I didn’t know I had PTSD,” she said which led to self-medicating. Eventually she tackled a 12-step program and it took, but she was uneasy with public places and facing authority figures, and she still believed the event was her fault.

Emmons sought counseling at the US Veterans Center in Portland. Over time her counselor helped her understand the violent act was her attacker’s responsibility. She guided Emmons through the process of appealing her discharge, and it was upgraded to an honorable status. The counselor also recommended that she apply for a service dog through Portland’s K9s on The Front Line, a non-profit that was co-founded by Dr. Hagen Blaszyk and Linda Murray. She did just that and between counseling and her confidence-building Black Mouth Cur service dog named Gunner, it’s been lifesaving. “It’s been a huge freeing experience.”

During her months-long training at K9s on The Front Line with the now 4-year-old Gunner, Emmons learned that she was the last individual to receive a service dog from that group to address PTSD/TBI from military sexual assault. (They now concentrate on military combat veterans suffering from PTSD and/or TBI.) She had many conversations with Dr. Blaszyk – he suggested she initiate SDS and she realized, “My whole life has been impacted by this. Instead of wallowing in grief, now I’m strong enough to do something.” Dr. Blaszyk has remained supportive and continues to be her mentor.

She also has support in the form of Kristen Stacy. She met her while ice fishing with friends – but Emmons wasn’t aware that she was a rape victim who had emotional support dogs, Riggs and Oakley, until after the chance meeting. Stacy was quick to jump on the board and Emmons refers to her as SDS’s co-founder.

SDS aligned with The Green Ark, a foster-based 501(c)(3) dog rescue that was founded by Athena Carriere. (For more on Green Ark, see page 16.) “She’s the dog whisperer,” Emmons said, adding that she has terrific instincts on animals. Carriere will recommend rescued dogs, and they’ll be evaluated by Christian Stickney, owner and chief trainer of North Edge K9 in Westbrook. That group has also committed to training SDS survivors and their canine partners through an 18-week course designed to address individuals’ needs. Upon passing the final exam, canines earn their service dog title and will comfort and guide their survivors/handlers, so they can take control of their lives.

They’re raising $21k for the first class of six survivors which includes the adoption cost of the rescued dogs, spay/neuter, initial shots, and training fees. Once funding is secure, SDS will begin the application process. All applicants must meet specific eligibility requirements, including having been medically diagnosed with sexual assault and/or rape-related PTSD, open their home to an SDS visit to ensure the dog will be in a safe environment, and must be able to provide ongoing vet care, including monthly preventatives, annual exams, shots, and any unforeseen medical needs for their new sidekick. “The dog will be with them for many years,” Emmons explained.

They’re grateful for donations so SDS can aid survivors and their families as well. Emmons put it in a nutshell as to why their nonprofit is important. “You have the power to help lift someone out of a dark hole and put him/her on the path to a better life, and help a four-legged friend as well. It is a win-win.”

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