Two good-natured dogs broke up the workday routine of hotline operators at 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast today. Service dogs Salsa and Prince were visiting to publicize the Dogs 4 Disabled Veterans program, one of the services 211 mentions to veterans, 6,000 of whom called 211 last year for help.
The 211 service took 133,000 calls last year, helping people with a variety of medical, emotional or financial problems.
Prince, a cavalier-poodle mix, is learning to balance a phone against his ear for publicity photos, along with more serious jobs like picking up keys for people who may not be able to bend over. Larger service dogs, like a Great Dane in the program, can help stabilize someone who has trouble with balance, or maneuver a wheelchair. D4D dogs can open doors, pick up phones in their mouths and even load washing machines.
Salsa, a boxer-pit bull mix, has a more esoteric skill. She knows when Moises Castro is about to have a seizure. She licks his face until he goes somewhere to lie down. Her licking gives him two or three minutes to prepare himself. It’s not clear how dogs detect the onset of a seizure, maybe a chemical or hormone the human exudes, but it works for Castro, who served in Kuwait.
“She’ll stay right with me, and put her paws on my chest,” he said.
Castro, 47, a Navy veteran from Coral Springs, had a tumor removed from the left side of his brain, but he still can get seizures. Remarkably, since Salsa came to live with him two years ago, he has not had any.
“I think it’s because she keeps my anxiety level low,” he said.
When Castro came back from his tour of duty in 2009, he was depressed and anxious. He had a career in mortgage banking, but he couldn’t work.
“I wouldn’t leave my house because of the seizure disorder,” he said. “I had a feeling of worthlessness. I couldn’t do anything for myself. I always had to count on my wife.”
His wife had to cut back to part-time work so she could look after him. He began having vision difficulties, then the seizures, including one that put him into a coma for two days. He went to an ophthalmologist, who suggested an MRI. Sure enough, there was the brain tumor. After surgery, he had to undergo physical therapy on his right side, which was affected. He can now walk on his own.
Once he got into the veterans system, someone suggested he apply for a service dog.
As part of his therapy, he and Salsa went on a weeklong hike on the Appalachian Trail, sponsored by Outward Bound. He was still fearful of leaving home, part of the disorder he brought back from Kuwait.
“I still remember that first night,” he said. “I cried. I thought I had made a mistake. But by the end of the trip I was glad we went.”
Next, he and Salsa swam with dolphins, in another program for veterans. Then he and his daughter and Salsa went on a family trip to the Grand Canyon.
“Ever since I’ve gotten her, it’s just been life changing,” Castro said. “My wife is more relaxed too. She still checks in with me, but it’s just easier on us. I can go to the VA (clinic).”
Everybody wins with the Dogs 4 Disabled Veterans program, said Becky Douglas, who evaluates trainers for D4D. A professional dog trainer, she felt moved one day four years ago to check the volunteer listings on the website CraigsList. There was D4D, looking for a trainer.
The animals are unwanted, some scheduled to be killed at shelters. If they pass a personality test and are capable of learning, they are assigned to Martin County Correctional Institute prisoners, who blossom by spending time with the dogs’ initial training.
“There’s no love in there,” said Douglas. “These dogs provide that for them.”
Dogs 4 Disabled Veterans is seeking veterans who need service dogs. For information, call (561) 706-3294.
Free, confidential assistance is available by calling 211, the help line for those with economic, health care or transportation needs, or by visiting www.211palmbeach.org.