At 2 years old, Rogue already knows a foreign language.
“Sitz, Platz, Blieb, Hier,” his owner, Jerry Lyda, says in German, commanding the German Shepherd to sit, lie down, stay and come after walking 20 feet away.
A certified therapy dog, Rogue is not only intelligent, but intuitive, assisting with rehabilitation and helping people relieve stress. He excels at both, said Lyda, who bred Rogue to help the growing number of severely disabled veterans in the Augusta area.
Together, the two are saving lives, matching dogs marked for death at shelters in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties with veterans who suffer from the post-traumatic stress of war.
The effort is called Veterans K-9 Solutions and it is reinventing how war heroes and service dogs find new life and purpose in the Southeast. This region, other than requiring all pets have a current rabies vaccination, does not monitor animal safety and welfare, according to Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee records. Richmond County kills 70 percent of the animals it houses.
“Our love for dogs and gratitude towards those who served makes our goal is simple – give back to those in need by saving two lives at a time,” said Lyda, a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1973.
Service dogs are 24/7 companions that can retrieve and carry objects, open doors, call attention to safety hazards, help with stress and provide a bridge back to society.
Lyda is now training two dogs at a south Augusta farm, but unlike other canine assistance programs, the veteran who will receive the dog shares new experiences and learns dozens of new commands throughout the teaching process, instead of being brought in later. The concept, Lyda believes, will bring immediate relief to soldiers, who in being scarred by the sights and sounds of war, have trouble eating, sleeping and visiting public places, such as the grocery store.
“One of the veterans I am working with is suffering from PTSD so bad he had to hold his wife’s hand throughout some of the teaching exercises,” said Lyda, who trained his first dog, a bird-hunting German Shorthaired Pointer, at age 12.
With the Army suicide rate up 16 percent from 2012, Dr. John Rigg, the director of the Traumatic Brain Injury program at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, encouraged Lyda to start Veterans K-9 Solutions.
Rigg said service dogs are trained to jolt a soldier from a flashback, dial 911 on a phone and even sense a panic attack before it starts. Perhaps most important, Rigg said, the veterans’ sense of responsibility, optimism and self-awareness are renewed by caring for the dogs and as a result, can reduce the amount of anxiety medications they take.
Like Rigg, Lyda has rallied lawyers, grant writers, police trainers, animal shelters and veteran outreach organizations behind his mission, which is pending approval with the Internal Revenue Service to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Once the IRS gives its blessing, Lyda, who is certified through the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program, said he will begin canvassing the area, matching dozens of qualified veterans to dogs, based on the personality of each.
Currently, Augusta Animal Services euthanizes 70 percent of the animals it houses.
The statistics have Veterans K-9 Solutions looking to act quickly to save the animals. The group already has a board of directors headed by Brad Owens, who as a close friend of Lyda and a 20-year Army veteran, saw the effort as a phenomenal way to provide a service to both veterans and the community.
“Jerry’s idea is an honorable one, and we look at this as an extension of the military code of honor to not leave any of our brothers or sisters behind just because they are no longer in combat,” said Owens, who has contracted with Lyda in the past for trained animals for his business, Osprey Security Services. “There is no better companion to give unconditional love than a good dog, and we’re just hoping we can a make a difference and help veterans and shelter animals lead better, more fulfilling lives.”
Lyda has full confidence he can accomplish the mission.
“I can’t help every veteran,” he said. “But if I can give at least one a new friend to help them overcome their fears or anxieties, then I have reached my goal.”