Steve Vincent talks about

Steve Vincent talks about the help his service dog DeeDee provides in his daily life. DeeDee, a 7-year-old Golden Labrador, calms Vincent, who suffered a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder while deployed in Iraq. The dog can also fetch shoes, turn light switches on and off, open some doors, and a host of other assistive tasks.

DeeDee lies quietly on the floor next to Steve Vincent, wearing her camouflage-coloredvest.

Vincent’s voice raises a couple notches.

DeeDee’s ears twitch.

Vincent statements become a bit more loud and animated.

DeeDee’s ears perk up as her sleepy brown eyes open and focus on him.

Vincent’s voice raises even more as he talks about the unethical treatment of pets and other animals.

DeeDee, a 7-year-old Golden Labrador, raises her head and gently but persistently nudges Vincent’s elbow. 

“I know, DeeDee. Good girl,” Vincent says, lowering his voice as he hands her a dog treat from the blue treat bag on his waistband.

Satisfied she’s done her job and gotten a snack, DeeDee again rests her jaw upon her paw.

DeeDee is Vincent’s service dog. Where he goes, she goes. They’re best buds.

Their relationship began in March 2013, but the story goes back another 10 years, after Vincent served his country in the transportation unit of the Army, then the National Guard and Reserves. 

“That was my life,” Vincent said of his time in the military. “That’s what I wanted to do. That’s who I was.”

Deployed to Iraq in 2003, he was blown off a fuel tanker. He suffered no obvious serious injuries, he said.

“If you weren’t dead, you continued to fight,” Vincent explained. 

So that’s what he did.

“But I started getting a lot of headaches,” he recalled. “I was eating Excedrin like it was candy.

“And I noticed I’d get mad faster than usual.”

He was diagnosed with a brain injury in 2006, about the time he met his future wife, Julie Schveiger-Vincent. 

Vincent was re-deployed in 2007, suffered knocks to the head, and was removed from active duty in 2010. He spent eight months at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in a “warrior transition unit,” where service members learn to integrate back into civilian life.

“And I became his biggest advocate,” Julie said of her husband, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to his military experience.

The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as a mental health condition that’s “triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.” Symptoms may include anything from flashbacks and nightmares to severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Many who suffer from PTSD have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, according to Mayo.

Vincent said he exhibited all the signs – nightmares, severe anxiety, quick and severe anger, etc. — “but I was physically able to carry on.”

“I’d go back [to the military] tomorrow if I could. Oh, yeah,” Vincent said.

The couple returned to Maquoketa on Veterans Day 2010. And in July 2012, Vincent was discharged and retired from military service.

All of a sudden the man who once was certain he was born to serve his country no longer knew who he was.

“He was on the road to re-defining himself,” Julie explained.

‘She’s my keeper’

The Vincents had heard about service dogs. Actually, they stumbled upon rescue dog Buddy one day while at the Maquoketa Area Family YMCA.

The Jackson County Humane Society had taken some dogs to the Y to get them better used to people. Buddy, a terrier, was hiding under a chair, scared of people, especially men. But when he saw Vincent sitting alone in a chair, Buddy walked over to him and soon jumped up on his lap. The Vincents agreed to foster Buddy for a month or two — that was six years ago. Now Buddy is their emotional support dog.

Dog therapy seemed to have a calming effect on Vincent. 

His doctor prescribed a service dog to help Vincent cope with daily life, calm him, and even assist with day-to-day tasks. 

About 18 months later, in March 2013, the Vincents spent two weeks at Camp Dodge in Des Moines to pick out and train with a Golden Labrador from Paws & Effect, an accredited service and therapy dog training center in Des Moines.

“You don’t pick the dog, the dog picks you. She sniffed me and sat down,” Vincent said of the training experience. In his case, two dogs picked him, and the trainer assigned DeeDee to him.

DeeDee had undergone 16 months of training before the Vincents took her home. The Lab instinctively knows when Vincent becomes agitated and nudges him. She can turn on light switches, open some cupboards, refrigerators and doors, pick up and deliver shoes, and is attune to Vincent’s needs.

Vincent had to assert himself as the Alpha (dominant) person in their relationship, thus, he can never be at a lower level than DeeDee. She follows his commands.

“She’s not my pet, she’s an extension of my right arm,” Vincent said, looking down at 7-year-old DeeDee. “She’s my battle buddy. I’ve got her back and she’s got mine.”

That need for dominance is why the Vincents want the public to know more about service dogs.

First and foremost, service dogs are allowed to go into any public place, Vincent said. That’s part of the Americans With Disabilities Act. So DeeDee has traveled with the Vincents to restaurants, on airplanes, to retail stores, to weddings, etc.

And when service dogs are wearing their vests, do not pet them. 

“That dog is working,” Vincent said. “And when she’s working, she ignores everything but me.”

He added that the dog’s attention must be focused on its owner, and such things as noises and petting may distract the dog. 

“Pretend the dog doesn’t exist,” Vincent continued. “Always ask permission before you pet the dog, and don’t make eye contact.”

DeeDee’s mannerisms change as soon as Vincent removes her vest. With the vest, she is docile, observant, still and calm. When the vest is removed, DeeDee still behaves, but her tail wags enthusiastically as she runs to everyone she sees in search of snacks and attention.

And she always responds to a snack, with or without the vest.

“She’s my keeper,” Vincent said.

And that benefits his wife.

“She gives me more freedom, too,” Julie said. “I felt like I always had to hover over him.

“I highly recommend service dogs.”

“There should be an animal for everybody, right DeeDee?” Vincent said, patting DeeDee’s head.

Service Dog Etiquette

• If the dog is wearing its service vest, do not pet the dog. Always ask the handler before petting or going near the dog. And don’t be offended if the handler refuses.

• Do not distract the service dog in any way (making noises, offering food or water, toys or petting).

• Ignore the service dog entirely. 

• Do not aske personal questions about the handler’s disability or intrude on privacy.

—Tips courtesy of the Puppy Jake Foundation, which trains service animals.

 

Types of Assistance Dogs

Service: Covered under Americans With Disabilities Act: Can go into any public establishment; must tolerate variety of experiences, people, and environments; may live with owner no matter if there is a “no pet” policy; specifically trained to assist only one person

Therapy: Must tolerate variety of experiences, people, and environments; provides emotional support and comfort to many people

Emotional Support: May live with owner no matter if there is a “no pet” policy; specifically trained to assist only one person; primary function is to provide emotional support through companionship

—Tips courtesy of the Puppy Jake Foundation, which trains service animals.