Service dog recovering after surgery; veteran anxiously awaiting her return

CTService dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and one pint-sized Chihuahua mix is deeply missed by her owner as she convalesces at Integrative Pet Care in Homer Glen, Ill., after back surgery. The dog, named Belle, developed a spinal disc extrusion that left her hind legs paralyzed on Thanksgiving, but she is slowly regaining the use of her legs after surgery. Her owner, Vietnam veteran Gary Jordan, says he misses Belle and hopes to have her home soon because she comforts him and helps him relate better to people. Chicago Tribune (tiered subscription model)

By Taylor W. Anderson, Chicago Tribune reporterJanuary 15, 2014

Vietnam veteran Gary Jordan is missing one of his most important troops: she’s a 3-year-old Chihuahua mix named Belle who’s trained to help him deal with his severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The 69-year-old is coping while Belle — a service dog trained through a Chicago non-profit that since 2010 has paired dogs with vets with post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related brain injuries — rehabilitates from a spine injury that paralyzed her on Thanksgiving Day.

“How am I doing without her? Not well,” Jordan said. “Because she’s my service dog, and we’ve been with each other since February.”

Jordan has been driving several times a week from his apartment in Markham to Integrative Pet Care in Homer Glen to see Belle, who is learning to use her back legs again at the clinic after surgery. Typically, the two spend every moment of every day together.

Jordan and Belle are a team put together by War Dogs Making It Home, a charity that rescues dogs from animal shelters and matches them with veterans who need help.

“We save two lives at a time: one dog and one veteran,” said Eva Braverman, the agency’s president.

The dogs are trained to sense when its owner is stressed and comfort them.

Braverman said Jordan called her on Thanksgiving when she was cooking dinner for her family to tell her Belle wasn’t well. One of the dog’s spinal discs was extruding, and she became paralyzed. “I literally put $4,000 on two different credit cards to pay for the surgery,” she said.

Jordan is one of about 25 teams in the War Dogs program, where veterans bring their companions for training twice weekly for the first year and once a week the second. Veterans in the program have served in almost every major foreign combat since Vietnam, Braverman said. She said about half of the owners are Vietnam veterans.

The dogs learn the behavior of their veterans, moving into action when vets show signs of anger or stress. “I have to tell her, ‘Belle, I’m all right,'” Jordan said. “If it doesn’t look like it to her, she’ll just stay there (in my arms). She don’t leave.”

Dr. Amber Ihrke works at Integrative Pet Care in Homer Glen, where Belle has been resting after her surgery. The site, which opened in 2013, is the third in the group, which also has locations in Chicago and Hanover Park.

“In three weeks, she’s gone from essentially paralyzed to walking around the room,” Ihrke said as Belle tried to stand on her hind legs in an IPC room in Homer Glen.

Jordan chokes back tears while getting ready to see Belle again. Doctors say they want Belle to get back to Jordan’s home so the two can help each other, but she still has a ways to go before being able to jump into Jordan’s arms.

“She helps me stay calm where I can actually deal with people better,” Jordan said. “It just helps me be more grounded.”

Integrative Pet Care is hosting an open house Feb. 8 to showcase the new partnership with War Dogs.

twanderson@tribune.com | Twitter: @TaylorWAnderson

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