“It was love at first sight for both of us,” said Sarah, describing her first meeting with Rex.
Sarah, an Air Force veteran, and recent amputee, was hoping to start over with a new partner. She wanted someone who could dispense comfort when she was in pain, shine light into her dark moments, and provide guidance as she navigated a new chapter in her life.
Rex, a two-year-old Belgian Malinois, needed a new job and someone to love and care for.
Theirs was a match made in heaven.
But their relationship didn’t start out swiping profiles on an app or as an eight-minute speed date.
Many service dog providers will pimp their dogs for thousands of dollars to the highest bidder. However, Rescue 22 Foundation is a cautious matchmaker that digs deep into the details to create the perfect pairing between dog and human - at no cost to the veteran.
The matchmaking process began when Rex was saved from a kennel that trained protection dogs. As a Belgian Malinois, Rex had the drive and intelligence to excel as a working dog. Still, he wasn’t thriving in that aggressive, bite-driven environment.
The Rescue 22 Foundation stepped in and put Rex into their service dog training pipeline.
Rex spent his first three months relearning basic obedience with inmates at the Everglade Correctional Institution in Miami.
After completing his refresher work, Rex moved in with Keturah, head of mobile dog training at Coastline K9. There, the real work started as he began the challenging process of being molded into a service dog.
A service dog specifically designed for one person.
Over the next 10 months, Rex had to learn how to read human body language and take specific actions based on what he saw, heard, or smelled.
That’s not a skill many dogs have the aptitude for learning.
“Rex is a unicorn Malinois,” said Keturah. “He loves learning and checking in to see how everyone is doing. He has a classic ‘monkey see, monkey do’ learning style in which he can quickly mimic the skills you're trying to teach him.”
One of the critical tasks Rex had to master was recognizing the onset of an anxiety attack and quickly acting to interrupt his handler and provide comfort.
To teach Rex those skills, Keturah had to learn how to mimic Sarah’s physical movements and behaviors. She sent videos of herself replicating those movement patterns to ensure she was teaching Rex how to correctly interpret Sarah’s body language.
“For example, I would start tapping my leg like Sarah does when an attack is about to start,” said Keturah. “As soon as Rex looked at me, I would mark the behavior with a clicker and give him a reward.”
In the canine training world, this is called free shaping. Keturah gradually and progressively marked and rewarded Rex’s behavior as he moved closer and closer to the desired action.
This was the beginning of the process that would eventually teach Rex when to relax and when to go to work. He needed to associate the sight of Sarah’s hand motions — even hearing the sound of her hands rubbing together — as his cue to take immediate action…
Run up to Sarah…
Stick his head between her hands…
And start licking her face.
His job was to shift her focus from the source of anxiety to him.
And Rex excelled at his work.
“Rex is very sweet and extremely intuitive,” said Keturah. “I think he identifies more as a Golden Retriever than a Malinois.”
Keturah working holds with Rex in a distracted environment. Or, how Keturah wanted this captioned: "A-tisket, a-tasket, a red but no yellow basket."
In addition to his vital interruption job, Keturah taught Rex how to work as a mobility dog for Sarah. He needed to know when to provide bracing support for Sarah if she loses her balance and walk with her if she is in a wheelchair.
And perhaps the most specialized skill in this dog’s skillset…
Rex had to learn how to be a rockstar.
“Sarah is a musician, and Rex needed to be able to stay with her at gigs,” Keturah said. “To get him used to loud environments, I took him to concerts and bingo nights in local bars to gradually acclimate him to those sounds, smells, and sights.”
As Rex was nearing the end of his initial training with Keturah, Sarah had the opportunity to spend a weekend with him at an event in Florida.
“Sarah became Rex’s ‘person’ for the weekend,” said Keturah. “They got to hang out together, eat together and nap together. Those two days started the bonding process, and we saw a spark in Sarah’s eyes. She knew this was going to be her dog.”
“I was leery of Rex and getting another service dog because the first one I had from another organization didn’t last long,” recalled Sarah. “As a veteran, it’s not easy to open up to someone without the shared experience of serving in the military and being on deployment. Since Rescue 22 is run by veterans, I was more comfortable opening up about my challenges and what I needed in a service dog.”
The Rescue 22 team can accurately match dogs and humans because of the comfort level and thorough vetting they provide.
While Rex and Sarah have been partners for only a few weeks, they’ve already developed a strong connection.
“Rex is a goofball, and I can’t see how I got this far without him by my side,” said Sarah. “We’re still learning to work together, but ultimately, he will return so much freedom to me. I’ll be able to go to crowded places like an outdoor mall and shop like I used to.”
If PTS or anxiety starts to kick in, Rex will be there to tell me: ’Hey, I’m HERE. We’re good. I’ve got you.’”