Service dog provides retired veteran with freedom

Story and photos
by Callie Sterling

When retired veteran Derrick Hardy of Wooster returned home from Iraq, his life was forever changed. Hardy served in the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team for the Arkansas National Guard.

When Hardy returned, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I joined the National Guard in 2006, and I was in Iraq for nine months in 2008,” Hardy said. “When I came home, I was honorably discharged from the military for medical reasons. That was when I was diagnosed with PTSD.”

PTSD inhibited Hardy from doing the things he loved, including simple tasks such as going to stores or out to eat with his family.

“I have three children — two daughters, Maddison and Sophia, and a son named Mason,” Hardy said.

Hardy was recommended as a candidate for the Service Dogs of Distinction program by his pet sitter, Ann Thompson Langle. His wife, Ashley, encouraged Hardy to pursue Langle’s recommendation to apply for the program.

“Ann knew I was a veteran and told my wife about the SDOD program,” Hardy said. “Ann also knew about the breeder who donates dogs to veterans who plan to enter the SDOD program. She helped set everything up with Kay Dale, the breeder who we got Liberty from. Kay did not charge me anything for Liberty; I simply had to agree to follow through with the SDOD program and use her as a service dog.”

Hardy received Liberty, a German Shepherd, at approximately five weeks old on June 5, 2016. She was born May 7, 2016.

“She was too little to start training with SDOD right away,” Hardy said. “So, we began her training when she was about 6 months old. We probably have about a year or so left of training. It takes approximately 18 months to fully train a dog as a service dog.”

Hardy attends a weekly training session for approximately one hour with Liberty. “It is definitely a commitment. We train one day a week every week,” Hardy said. “It is absolutely worth it! I would encourage any veteran who is struggling with PTSD to consider getting a service dog and to start training with Service Dogs of Distinction.”

Since he began training with Liberty, Hardy is reaping the benefits in a big way. He is more active and getting back into his regular routine that he established before life with PTSD.

“Liberty helps me in so many ways,” Hardy said. “She makes me get out of the house, which is great. We go on walks, and I am more active. She even gives me encouragement to go out to stores. Having her is like having another ‘battle buddy’ with me all the time. Having her by my side helps keep me calm, helps with the anxiety, and she is like having a second set of eyes. She is always watching me and looking out for me. I feel comforted when she is by my side.”

Hardy does not encounter many problems with having a service dog; but he does express some concern over people staring when he is in public.

“I usually have no problems when I am out with Liberty,” Hardy said. “However, it can be a little frustrating when people stare at us in a store or in a restaurant because Liberty often feels targeted or threatened. She will bark a little as a result. I think people do that because they are not used to always seeing dogs in public places, but I would like to encourage others not to stare when they see a service dog with their owner.”

Hardy describes Liberty as a fun-loving, highly intelligent dog.

“She is so smart and really relaxed,” Hardy said. “I love how laid-back she is. She is definitely intelligent and very obedient. She is still young, so I wouldn’t say she is a perfect service dog just yet, but by the end of training I am hopeful that she will be almost perfect. She is always very aware of our surroundings.”

To find out how to donate or get involved with Service Dogs of Distinction, contact Don Gardner at 501.730.3928 or [email protected]