Hayley Zielinski knew in her heart that a friendly, black Labrador named Jet could run into the open arms of someone in need, if his big brown eyes could just see the world outside the Augusta Animal Shelter.
Thanks to Zielinski, a volunteer at the shelter, Jet and other dogs from the shelter are getting a second chance and helping military veterans in the Augusta area who need a loving, canine companion.
Every Monday, Zielinski spends hours bathing, drying, walking and cuddling animals at the shelter on Mack Lane. Many of the dogs, she learned, are smart, well-behaved and people-friendly.
So, Zielinski jumped into action, matching dogs with veterans. The results are three-fold: saving animals, helping veterans and changing perceptions that shelter dogs are inferior pets.
Zielinski has lived in the area for seven years, working five years at the Marshall Family Y in Evans. Last year, she got connected to animal rescue groups through friends and started volunteering
at the shelter in the spring.
Zielinski recognized that rescue groups could benefit from improved business practices, including marketing and networking. With a friend, she is applying for licensing and nonprofit status for a new group called “Dog Networking Agents.”
“DNA – it’s in our genes to save dogs,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Zielinski partnered with animal rescue group Ruff Rescues and adopted Jet from the Augusta Animal Shelter. She asked local Vietnam veteran and dog trainer Jerry Lyda, of Veterans K9 Solutions, to help train Jet.
Trained dogs can help disabled veterans be more comfortable in crowded environments, wake up from nightmares or remember to take medications, Lyda said.
“It’s going to take time, trust and patience. Then, it’s going to take a lot of bonding,” he said.
Zielinski’s idea has gained speed quickly. Last weekend, Lyda asked her to find a shelter dog for Army veteran Jonathan Mounier. He began training with a pit bull-terrier mix named Lilly on Thursday.
Mounier, 32, was wounded in Afghanistan in 2011 when an improvised explosive device blew up at a construction area where he was providing security. He says he has suffered from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic migraines, light sensitivity, memory loss and behavioral issues.
Mounier hopes Lilly will help him control his aggression, find misplaced keys and be a friend when he experiences loneliness.
“She lowers my stress. She just sits in my lap and licks my face,” he said. “Who doesn’t calm down when you are treated like that?”
A third dog, Duke, was adopted from the DeKalb County animal shelter for Navy veteran Dean Cheves, of Martinez. Cheves has a seizure disorder related to his military service.
Zielinski envisions her idea growing into a communitywide project helping dozens of veterans. A year ago, she couldn’t imagine she would be volunteering for a shelter or spending so much time and energy helping dogs and veterans.
“It doesn’t have to be dogs you volunteer with,” she said. “Pick your passion. Pick somebody you want to help.”