Service dogs help those with disabilities regain independence

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EAST HANOVER TWP., LEBANON COUNTY, Pa. -- The saying goes, 'a dog is a man's best friend," but for veteran Adam Stasiak, the bond runs deeper.

"Sometimes he knows what's going on before I even know what's going on," explained Stasiak.

Stasiak suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq. He says when he returned home, his life became 'hectic' and 'not normal.' Stasiak says he had trouble driving in cars and couldn't leave the house without his wife.

"When we did go out, somebody would walk behind me, somebody would walk in front and to the side of me because having people around me just didn't work out too well," explained Stasiak. "I had problems with umbrellas, I thought they were other things."

His PTSD created several challenges for his entire family.

"It was really troublesome," said his wife, Vicki. "It was really frustrating, you can't just go to a restaurant and pick any seat that they give you. We have to see where all the exits are, we have to sit with our backs to the walls."

But that's not the case as much anymore, thanks to Adam's four-legged shadow, Cameron.

"Cameron has made things a lot easier, he really has," said Stasiak. "Instead of everyone having to worry about being behind me or in front of me, that's what he does and he does it really well."

Adam met Cameron through Susquehanna Service Dogs in Grantville, Lebanon County. He is one of hundreds of service dogs the organization raises and trains to help those with disabilities.

"They need to be a confident dog, able to handle different environments and different things so it doesn't get phased by it," explained Director of Training and Breeding, Amanda Nicholson.

From the early stages of their life, Nicholson and several other trainers work with the puppies to introduce them to a variety of sights, sounds, smells and services. Once they are several weeks old, they go live with volunteer puppy raisers to get crucial real-life experience until they are about 18 months old.

"They do a lot of their basic training, socializing, letting them out in public, and letting them experience different things they may experience when they are out with their partner," said Nicholson.

As they continue their training, the dogs are taught various job skills to help with many different disabilities including hearing loss, balance impairment and PTSD. They learn things like opening a door, providing aid down the steps and grabbing items out of the refrigerator. These are all skills intended to help their partner regain independence.

"They can be absolutely life-changing," said Nicholson. "They can get people who were really afraid to go in public, go out and do things. They can really help a child with autism make friends, which is a huge impact on a child's life."

For Adam, Cameron helps him feel more confident going out in public and is able to sense any of his fear or anxiety.

"Cameron without being cued sometimes will climb into the bed and lay on top of him and create some pressure when Adam's having a nightmare," explained Vicki. "That'll help calm him and he'll lick him in the face to wake him up."

While Adam and Cameron have only been partners for just over a year, Adam says his life is changed forever.

"I think it's changed me in a way that's affected my family in a big positive way," said Stasiak. "I can see that the kids really appreciate that."

Seeing that impact is why Nicholson loves doing what she does.

"It's really cool to see that person's face light up when that dog is interacting well with them," said Nicholson. "We hear the stories of how the dogs are doing with their partner and it's a really cool thing."