Dogs are man’s best friend but sometimes, dogs can be more than just that. Operation Sidekick, part of the American Pit Bull Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit and the official partnered charity of NC COMICON 2019, sought to bring awareness not only to how great pit bulls are but how wonderful of a service animal they make. Operation Sidekick exclusively trains rescued pit bulls as service dogs to help veterans overcome the daily struggle of PTSD and depression. American Pit Bull Foundation founder and CEO and Operation Sidekick program director Sara Ondrako said that about 20 veterans commit suicide in America each day. Additionally, about 1,200 pit bulls are euthanized in American each day. Operation Sidekick is the first organization to bridge the gap and exclusively work with both rescued dogs and long-suffering veterans of PTSD to pair a set of best friends that will help and assist each other through every aspect of life.
During their panel on Saturday of the convention, Ondrako spoke with moderator Matt Conner, M.D., NC COMICON’s panel director and a psychiatrist, about the foundation and more importantly, the role of their service dogs. Part of their goal, in addition to placing service dogs with Veterans, is to change the stereotype against pit bulls. According to Ondrako, pit bulls are naturally great working dogs so “what better way to smash that stereotype than putting them [pit bulls] in positions they are naturally really good at…”
But Ondrako also pointed out that in addition to educating the public about pit bulls, Operation Sidekick is working to educate the public about service dogs and the danger fake service dogs can have on owners who need these incredible animals like any other medical tool or device. Unlike a pet, service dogs provide a service. Service dogs are trained to work with just one person but can serve that one person in many different ways. This differs from therapy dogs who can provide services to multiple people in settings like schools, hospitals, or disaster shelters.
Service dogs require the most training and because of this have the most protection under the law. Similarly, emotional support animals are there to provide emotional support but they do not have the same protections. Emotional support animals are not protected in public outside of travel. Service dogs, however, are allowed anywhere. That being said, more and more people with service animals are finding it harder to be with their animal because of the bad name fake service animals have brought to the good work organizations like Operation Sidekick are trying to do. According to Conner, “if a dog bites someone, that is not a service dog. Service dogs have been through so much training that they would not be biting someone. A problem we have is that people do not understand their role in this law and these things that protect people with access issues.”
Ondrako expanded on this by saying “fake service dogs impair our ability to help.” While it is important that owners know their rights, Ondrako described how difficult any gatekeeping of a service animal can be to a veteran with PTSD, especially those who, prior to having a service animal, have become shut-ins.
“Because of the stress businesses will put on them [service dog owners], questioning them about their service animal and telling them they cannot be in an establishment because of the last dog…they just shut down again. So all that work, all that treatment to where that person could feel normal in that environment again can get crushed immediately.” But, with the help of education and advocacy, fewer and fewer veterans with service dogs will have to face that issue. Instead, they can focus on getting back to enjoying life, including being at places like NC COMICON.
In a comic convention setting, like NC COMICON, people with PTSD can suffer from hypervigilance, which as Ondrako describes, is the feeling of “constantly looking around, can’t relax, and constantly paying attention to your surroundings.” Being hypervigilant can lead to being overstimulated which can be exhausting. Crowds are also difficult because of how much it plays into the hypervigilance. Speaking specifically about the military, Ondrako said, “in war zones, you are taught to watch your back for very specific reasons…so when you are in a situation like Comic-Con, it is very difficult to position yourself to where you feel safe.”
Additionally, as Conner pointed out, at Comic-Con, “a lot of people look like people who are scary…and with PTSD especially, someone who has survived an issue where they were close to death, can’t take the harmlessness at face value the way others can.” Fortunately for veterans with PTSD, service dogs can help with a lot of these issues by acting as a simple reminder to vets that they are safe. The dogs can pick up on when their owners’ anxiety levels are rising and step in to remind them they are okay by either pawing them or even putting pressure on them.
Later, when speaking to Ondrako directly, she further elaborated on how service dogs can alleviate the stress found at convention settings. One of the major things she mentioned both during the panel and after was dogs going ahead of their owners. This creates the idea of safety and similarity to the military when someone goes ahead of you. Additionally, service dogs will act as an “anchor, or be between their owner’s legs.”
This helps the dog not only feel their owner’s anxiety level, body temperature, and even blood pressure but also helps the owner feel the dog’s weight and be reminded they are safe. This idea is similar to that of a weighted blanket. Some service dogs will lay on their owners during flashbacks or stressful situations to bring them back to the moment.
Operation Sidekick is based out of North Carolina but is always looking for volunteers and donations, which go toward dog training, veterinary costs, foster care and supplies, nutrition, as well as educational and promotional materials. You can also follow Operation Sidekick on Facebook and Instagram. You can follow Operation Sidekick’s Blue Ivy on Instagram as well.