Justin Slep returned from combat duty changed. His Marine Corps service in Iraq and Afghanistan left him with brain injuries, PTSD, vertigo and anxiety. His service dog, Indi, is his “saving grace.”
“Indi is always right there with me,” said the Franklin County director of veterans’ affairs. “He can open and close doors. He’s always looking up to see what I need.”
Indi can sense when Slep is having a nightmare. The German Shepherd might use his nose to wake his human.
When Slep suffered a vertigo attack, Indi came to the rescue. “I was on my hands and knees, and Indi crawled under me and arched his back to stabilize me,” Slep said. “I was able to push off his back and stand up.”
Pamela Hartzok, store manager of the Lowe’s of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and a 31-year veteran of the company, said, “Justin had a dream to do this [train service dogs] for others. But he wasn’t sure how to go about it.”
When Slep began work for the county VA in 2014, one of the first things he did was ask around for a local service dog trainer. He knew after talking to Helen Carlson for 10 minutes that she was right for the job. Carlson, a local kennel owner, dog trainer and sign language interpreter, even donated an old barn and a portion of her property to the cause. Her space allowed her to kennel and train up to three dogs at any one time. But Slep had bigger dreams.
Hartzok wanted to spearhead a Lowe’s Heroes project to benefit veterans. She mentioned that to a loyal customer, who knows Slep and his goal of matching more vets with dogs. The customer called him from her cell phone in the store and handed the phone to Hartzok.
After two months of prep, the dream became a reality over three rainy, windy days in late October. Nearly 100 Lowe’s Heroes volunteers renovated the barn to make space for housing and training 10 dogs at a time.
“We had strict daily deadlines,” said Slep. “We couldn’t let bad weather deter us. All the materials and labor were being donated. We couldn’t ask anyone to come back another day. There was so much that had to be done from a project management standpoint – permitting, working with contractors. The Lowe’s team navigated those waters.”
Lowe’s employees throughout the region were involved. Carlisle, Pennsylvania Store Manager Marlin Stauffer signed on early and was there from the first on-site meeting. The managers from Mechanicsburg, Hanover and Harrisburg joined forces, too – as did their teams. People painted, put flooring in and installed a new metal roof on the kennel. Everyone had a job. Someone from the Carlisle store even designed and built pet doors to allow the dogs to easily come in and out of their home.
This wasn’t just a renovation. It was also a new construction project. “Our team built the 10-dog kennel structure from the ground up,” said Hartzok. And they built a fence around it.
An entire army of heroes made it happen.
It takes a lot of training to turn a rescue dog – and many of these service dogs were rescued – into a working dog. But it takes a lot to train the human handler, too. “Having a service animal is not simple,” Slep said. “It’s like having a toddler. I don’t leave home without a dog bowl, dog food, an extra collar, an extra leash.”
Training a vet-and-canine pair usually involves three 11-week sessions. “They have to pass a test as a team,” Slep said. “We certify the dog first and the team second.”
It’s a job Slep loves. “This is my purpose in life now,” he said. “My mission is to take care of my brothers and sisters who served our country.”
Learn more about Operation Save-A-Vet, Save-A-Pet at gooddogpaws.com