Perhaps you have seen a dog or two walking around campus wearing a harness that states “please ask to pet me.”
If so, you have probably seen Luke or Betty, the service dogs that accompany Geoffrey Zehnacker around campus.
Zehnacker served in the Marine Corps for over 14 years before being medically retired in 2010. Zehnacker ran a patrol that looked for mines and IEDs in western Iraq and was exposed to multiple close explosion encounters.
“We had one very serious encounter that caught us off guard and blew up my Humvee,” Zehnacker said, “and I ended up taking some shrapnel.”
It was later discovered that Zehnacker had a frontal lobe micro lesion. “How it happened couldn’t be definitively discovered, but the neuropsychologist concluded that I was probably in a concussed state for about three months. I thought it was exhaustion at the
time, but it turned out I was stacking concussion on top of concussion,” Zehnacker notes.
Due to his injury, Zehnacker suffers from absence seizures. “If my brain isn’t engaged, I’ll lose all sense of space and time, I’ll just be out,” Zehnacker said.
The dogs help prevent this by interacting and engaging with Zehnacker when they sense something is “off.”
“At the first sense of any panic or anxiety episode, the dogs can pick up on the chemical reaction, and they can let me know before I even begin to feel it,” Zehnacker comments. “They’ll nudge me, push me, pull me; they’ll do something to get my attention so I can’t drift away.”
Despite the benefits of service dogs, the Veterans Affairs Department currently only provides service dogs for veterans with physical disabilities (although the department currently has a study underway assessing the effectiveness of service dogs for veterans dealing with psychological issues).
“I have no doubt that at the end of the study, they will realize the benefits of service dogs for veterans with problems other than physical disabilities and begin supporting it,” Zehnacker said.
In the meantime, there are other options for veterans like Zehnacker. Zehnacker worked with trainers to train Luke (who he has had since a puppy) as a service dog, and began utilizing Luke as a service dog in 2009.
Now that Luke is nearing retirement age, Zehnacker has been working with Betty from the Patriot Assistance Dogs program in Detroit Lakes, which provides service dogs to veterans at no charge.
Luke will continue to work as Zehnacker’s service dog, but now only works on Thursdays and stays home while Betty takes on the majority of the work.
Zehnacker is currently a grad student in the Human Development program and is pursuing his PhD.
“With the dogs, I can be in class and deal with a panic or anxiety episode in thirty seconds,” Zehnacker said. “Where other people might have to take a drug or step out to calm down, I don’t have to. You can’t do that in college, in life. You can’t step out, keep stepping out, or you’ll be put out.”