“Whether they say he can be a service dog or not, he’ll stay in our family,” said Bill Johnson, one of the owners of Balto, an English Labrador retriever trained to help his wife, Kinga Kiss-Johnson, an Army veteran injured in Afghanistan.
Police said Balto was shot Monday night during a burglary at the residence in the 2300 block of Gardner Street.
Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Jimmy Young said he thinks the burglar thought the home was empty when he or she attempted to climb through a bedroom window about 7:30 p.m., but was startled by the large dog and shot it.
It was the second time the home had been broken into in the past week and the third time this year.
Kiss-Johnson said it was unusual for her to go to the store and leave behind the dog who she said had saved her life, but Balto was tired.
The dog came into Kiss-Johnson’s life about 2½ years ago to help her recover from brain and back injuries she sustained while serving in Afghanistan in 2007.
Although the 35-year-old Army veteran did not want to discuss details of her service injuries, she said Balto changed her life. The dog is trained to assist with post-traumatic stress disorder calming Kiss-Johnson and helping her to regain independence.
Balto had just accompanied Kiss-Johnson to the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., and was still lethargic from flying more than 10 hours, so she let him rest while she went to the store for dog food.
When she returned an hour later, she found a side window open and was hit by a familiar feeling.
Kiss-Johnson said she called Balto’s name, but he didn’t respond. She found him on the couch in a pool of blood.
“I don’t know how I moved him,” she said of the 100-pound-plus dog. He was nervous and refused to move through the part of the house where she thinks he was shot.
Veterinarians said they were not able to retrieve all the bullet fragments from Balto’s neck and don’t know whether that will alter his future as a service dog.
“He’s been taking care of me,” Kiss-Johnson said. “Now it’s my turn to take care of him.”
The couple said the dog is still nervous and refuses to leave them but is getting his playful spirit back. On Thursday, the dog was slow but still eager to play as he wobbled around with a chew toy.
The Johnsons are looking for a new home while staying with friends in Harlem.
Johnson believes any burglar who would shoot a dog would also have shot his wife if she had been home.
Kiss-Johnson, originally from Romania, said she and her husband are “from everywhere” and had looked forward to making Augusta their home. They bought the home from the Links Group on Veterans Day 2011 for $5.
They are now looking for a home in the country where they can feel safe and Balto can relax.