Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia

Service Dog Gives New Meaning to Term “Man’s Best Friend”

George Guffey had to swallow his pride.

As a gruff, hard-nosed Marine, Guffey wasn’t used to asking for help. He was the strong man, show-no-emotion type of guy, capable of handling things himself. The masochistic mindset of the being considered among the toughest soldiers in the world only reinforced this behavior.

But after two tours in Iraq from July 2010 to June 2012, Guffey returned home a changed man. He had seen things. Horrible things. Things to this day he won’t, rather can’t, talk about. To those who knew him before the war, he was completely different.

Guffey knew it too. PTSD had slowly, but surely wrapped its chilly fingers around his mental health like a vise. He started to wonder if there was a way out. Outwardly, though, he thought he feigned it well. He thought he had everyone fooled.

Then his girlfriend at the time dropped a bomb of realization. She knew Guffey from high school. She was there when he graduated and she was there when he returned home from the front lines of war. You’re not the same person, she said. You need help. You need the VA.

“I took that gut check and went,” Guffey said.  “It was hard. That culture of the broad chested, bad ass Marine was still engrained.”

That fateful day changed his life forever.

After meeting with someone who suggested he get a service dog, Guffey mulled it over. They were expensive, sometimes costing as much as $40,000, money he simply did not have. Plus, there’s typically a waiting list for months, sometimes years.

Enter Puppies Behind Bars, a NY-based nonprofit that uses inmate labor to train service dogs, typically Labradors because of their ability to learn dozens of c

ommands. The nonprofit, operating on the backs of generous donors and ingenious grant writing, fast tracks the waiting list for younger veterans, typically those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The application process is robust. Trained professionals gauge the mind state of veterans, both to determine if a service dog will help, but also to ensure the safety of the dog itself. It’s a long process, one that Guffey kind of brushed aside, not expecting to be gifted such a dog.

Then, one random day after a long Memorial Day weekend where he attended Arlington National Cemetery with friends and paid respects to fallen comrades, Guffey’s phone buzzed to life.

George, a yellow Lab, would soon be Guffey’s new best friend, if, of course, Guffey still wanted the dog. The answer was simple and they’ve been inseparable ever since.

Sit Boy Sit

After spending about six weeks with George, the typical incubation period for a veteran to get used to their service dog and vice versa, George came home to Johnson City. At first it was the little things that mattered. George just being around on a lonely night. Then George became a reason for Guffey to get out of bed. There were also responsibilities to fulfill. He had to be walked, fed, and taken the veterinarian. George became more than a service dog. He gave Guffey a reason to live.

“It’s hard to wake up depressed when you sit up and have a dog smiling in your face, giving you a kiss,” Guffey said. “It’s amazing what they’ve done to train him too. I can’t imagine how they do it. He’s highly motivated. Very driven. He thoroughly enjoys it.”

George knows more than 100 commands. Combine them and the things George can accomplish are nothing short of amazing. George, for instance, can fetch a bottle of water out of the refrigerator. With a rope tied to the door, Guffey can say pull, grab, bring. Before long, George was bringing Guffey water without even a hint of coaxing.

But service dogs do more than fetch quests. Ever since his deployments ended, Guffey has struggled to sleep. Night has always been the hardest. Nightmares pierce his conscious night after night. But George is trained to recognize such spells.

“He will turn on the lights, pull the covers off me and wake me up,” Guffey said. “He’s always there for me.”

Always is not meant metaphorically either. George never leaves Guffey’s side. Ever. If he travels, George has the neighboring seat in the plane. A quick workout before class? George is coming to the gym also. A night on the town? Yup, George hangs with the crew. In fact, George travels with Guffey so much during trips to college at ETSU that the yellow lab has become a quasi-famous figurehead on campus. Recently, George celebrated a birthday and he received more attention than Guffey. Every body knows the veteran and the dog. Passerby’s don’t even inquire why George is always around anymore.

“Yes, he even comes on dates,” Guffey said laughing. Whether or not a woman accepts the fact, can tell Guffey a lot about whom he’s meeting. It’s become the “new benchmark.”

“George has been with me for five years, but I’ve just met you,” he said laughing at the scene as he says it out loud.

Proven Benefits

Mankind has relished in the bond between man and its dog for centuries. Movies are made about the bond. Best sellers feature dogs as the main character. The bond is mentioned in folklore. From the everyman to the king of the castle, dogs have always man’s best friend.

But in February this year, a preliminary study led by researchers at Purdue University College of Veteran Medicine not just recognizes the calming influence service dogs have on PTSD symptoms, but it showcases they actually decrease the symptoms, a new finding that solidifies the importance of this bond.

Guffey doesn’t need a study though to tell you this. He admits his life was spiraling out of control. After witnessing things no man should see, Guffey realizes his life was lived in a black cloud. But George, he said, George turned all this around.

“I credit everything to having George. I’m open to people now. I’m not as closed up. I’m about ready to graduate and start a brand new career. He’s the one that I owe thanks to,” Guffey said. “He saved my life.”

Share Post