Since retiring from the Navy 20 years ago, Ila Whittington-Schaut has struggled in social situations.
At times, her memory eludes her. She has trouble completing thoughts. Even tasks as simple as grocery shopping seem daunting to the North Augusta woman who suffers from post-traumatic stress and major depressive disorders.
A nonprofit organization, Canine Assistants, is helping Whittington-Schaut regain her confidence in public settings. At a special sponsorship ceremony at Fort Gordon on Thursday, it announced that it will donate a certified therapy dog to her.
While it will take two years of training before her new helper is by her side, Whittington-Schaut said she could not be happier. Service dogs are 24/7 companions that can retrieve and carry objects, open doors, call attention to safety hazards, help with stress and balance difficulties, and most of all, provide a bridge back to society, a transition that Whittington-Schaut has longed to complete.
“I am so thrilled. This really is an answer to a prayer,” Whittington-Schaut said. “My new service dog will bring me the comfort I need to get out and walk more and calm me when I’m anxious or alone.”
Canine Assistants was founded in 1991 by Jennifer Arnold. Since its inception, the organization has placed 1,000 service dogs – between 75 and 100 each year – with children and adults who have physical disabilities or other special needs.
Most of the group’s service dogs are retrievers – goldens and Labradors – and are born, raised and trained at the organization’s facility in Milton, Ga., although some are occasionally adopted from local organizations or breeders.
Whittington-Schaut was introduced to the idea of a service animal by her primary physician, Dr. Jennifer Ward, whom she sees through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
After talking with Ward, Whittington-Schaut engaged in more than a year of research, reading up on various organizations before settling on Canine Assistants.
The organization spends more than $20,000 on training its service dogs to respond to as many as 40 commands, a skill that is crucial in helping veterans face disabilities and disorders, gauge the safety of their surroundings, and, consequently, allow them to venture into public places without constantly scanning for snipers, hidden bombs and other dangers still imprinted in their subconscious.
Within weeks of receiving their new animals, owners have reported they were able to cut in half the anxiety and sleep medications they took; night terrors and suicidal thoughts had ceased; and in one case, a man was able to “set foot in a grocery store for the first time in three years.”
“Everything I saw,” Whittington-Schaut said, “made me feel very good about filling out the paperwork for Canine Assistants.”
Whittington-Schaut was joined at the Fort Gordon Commissary on Thursday by a certified Canine Assistants’ trainer and representative service dog. In 18 months, she will be meet her future companion at the Canine Assistants facility in Milton to go through two weeks of training, in which the two will learn each other’s habits, strengths and weaknesses.
After they bond, they will head home together.
Canine Assistants runs entirely on individual and corporate donations, such as those from the Milk-Bone brand, which for the past 13 years has donated hundreds of service dogs nationwide through the help of its retail partners.
Whittington-Schaut and her husband plan to welcome their new service dog into their North Augusta home with open arms.
“I will get to learn some things I haven’t known about myself,” Whittington-Schaut said. “It’s an exciting opportunity.”