The dogs at 2674 Kiser Ave. in Lithia Springs like "Big Boy," "Buster," and "Pete" are more than just a best friend to Ken Cappello, Sheila Benton, and Brittney Smith.
“I have PTSD,” Smith said. “Pete helped where medication and therapy, including EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), could not. There’s a companionship and a connection there where sometimes you [usually] feel alone, [but] you’re not.”
Cappello, who is a veteran himself, has been running the IGY6 Dog Training Service for two years now. The inspiration for beginning the service came after a fellow veteran — Stephen — who was like a “little brother or a son” to Cappello lost his life to PTSD a couple of years ago while waiting to receive a service dog of his own. In most programs, it takes two or three years to get a service dog, Cappello said.
Most of the dogs at the training site are rescue dogs, Cappello said. IGY6 works with other organizations such as BullsEye Rescue, Inc. of Atlanta and Atlanta Lab Rescue to get a majority of the dogs.
At IGY6, the dogs receive the basic training needed to become official service dogs for the veterans. If the dogs don’t make it through basic training, they are put up for adoption. One of the requirements to become service dogs is for the canines to pass a certain amount of tests including the public access test, where the dogs go out in public and must act a certain way.
“We can be at a restaurant table and we’ve had servers come up to us an tell us, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know there was a dog under there,’” Cappello said. “That means he was doing his job.”
In addition to helping the veterans with PTSD, IGY6 also welcomes anyone suffering from the effects of depression, anxiety, or any traumatic experience. Smith deals with trauma from her childhood, she said, but working with Pete these last few months has boosted her self-confidence immensely, to the point where she could even speak to a reporter for this story.
“I was actually in therapy and we were going over a memory that was pretty painful,” Smith said. “I started flashing. Pete kept nudging me until he got up in my face and I was able to pet him. Whenever that happens, it’s very important to keep your senses about you, so I just petted him and petted him and it helped pull me out of it. In that part of your brain, you’re locked, but if you can regain your five senses, you’re good. It helps pull you out of that moment in time so he picked up on that before I could even do it. He came over and was just kind of persistent on me until I started petting him.”
The service dogs help wake up the owners when the owners are having nightmares or horror flashes, Cappello said. There was one point where Cappello didn’t leave the house himself for two years, and even after meeting Buster, it took Cappello’s service dog a year to trust him.
“You think about being in the military — everything’s done in a certain way,” Cappello said. “Then in the civilian world, you’re like, ‘What are all of these people doing? They have to do certain things a certain way.’ So to transition from that to this is a lot. We often talk to people about being in combat and a lot of them still think they’re in combat.”
Today’s IGY6 Dog Training Service is currently running in a backyard and the nonprofit organization relies on donations because the participants who seek help from a service dog are not charged to use the program. Donation funds go towards getting the dogs’ medication, food, and taking the time to train the dogs. Cappello hopes to raise enough money one day to move into a larger facility that would allow him to let participants live on the same training grounds as the dogs. A lot of the current out-of-town participants have to stay in a nearby hotel in Lithia Springs throughout the training, Cappello said.
In addition to donations, IGY6 also welcomes volunteers. Any volunteer interested in helping the service through video media, photography, writing, fundraising committees, foster care, and helping with the dogs can find a volunteer application on the organization’s website at www.IGY6servicedogs.org.
The organization also plans to be in downtown Douglasville on the same day as the Taste of Douglasville on May 19. The IGY6 Dog Training Service can be contacted at 404-309-6730 or firstname.lastname@example.org.