Morgan Watt has relied on dogs to save his life many times.
First, in the Air Force when he was a bomb dog handler, Watt relied on the dogs to detect dangerous explosives.
“Working a bomb dog you had to be 100 percent. I always knew in that position I was expendable, and just felt like if something’s going to blow up, I want it to blow up on me and not somebody else,” Watt said.
“So that was kind of the attitude I had going into all the bomb threats and everything that I worked. It was just high stress but I was relying on my dog for my life. So coming full-circle, it was really easy to rely on my dog again for my life.”
Now retired, Watt, of Riverview, relies on his 5-year-old Goldador (half Golden retriever, half Labrador) Foley to help him manage his chronic pain, which includes migraines along with depression and anxiety.
After his military career, Watt’s counselor encouraged him to volunteer; that’s when he found Southeastern Guide Dogs and started volunteering in the kennels.
Southeastern Guide Dogs, headquartered in Palmetto, trains dogs to help humans with vision loss, as well as veterans and children and provides the dogs at no cost.
“I felt such a sense of peace in the kennels with these dogs, it was like coming full-circle for me, getting reconnected with dogs again. It took a lot, but I actually reached out and asked for help and I said, ‘Maybe one of these service dogs would help me with the PTSD that I’m struggling with,” Watt said.
He was matched with Foley shortly after. Watt said the dog has changed his life.
Though not specifically being trained to do so, Foley has started predicting Watt’s migraines, even bringing him his medication before the pain can kick in.
From calming him down during anxiety attacks to predicting migraines, Foley helps Watt every day, including at a breakfast honoring service and guide dogs Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
“A guide dog will stand in front of them and not let someone interfere with their personal space. A guide dog will alert them when somebody’s coming up and make them more comfortable,” said retired U.S. Army General Doug Brown, the keynote speaker for the breakfast.
Wednesday’s event gathered donors and friends of Southeastern Guide Dogs to hear stories from veterans, as well as honor their four-legged companions.
Southeastern Guide Dogs CEO Titus Herman called the breakfast a “friend-raiser” that will also raise money for the organization, which does not receive government funding.
Announced at the breakfast was the Heroes Council Challenge, a grant where donations will be matched up to $250,000. The funds would help Southeastern Guide Dogs serve more veterans in 2019.
Since Southeastern Guide Dogs started in 1982, the organization has brought together more than 3,100 guide and service dog teams, with more than 100 new teams created each year; teams such as Foley and Watt, and Pella and her veteran Sean Brown, who shared their story at breakfast.
Sean Brown had been medically discharged from the Army and his custom Harley Davidson motorcycle was his sense of relief.
When he no longer could ride his custom Harley Davidson motorcycle — after several surgeries and two crashes — and had panic attacks, his search for help led him to Southeastern Guide Dogs.
After being accepted into the program and hundreds of emails over the course of a few months, he finally traveled from Savannah, Georgia, to Florida to enter a training class with Southeastern Guide Dogs.
There, he met his canine partner Pella, a 2-year-old black Labrador. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
The pair graduated from the class in March 2018.
Since then, Brown has been able to return to work, walk into a crowded store on a busy day and has lost weight.
“I wouldn’t trade Pella for the world,” Brown said.
He said Southeastern Guide Dogs was “lifesaving” for him, and he’s not alone.
“I went from basically suicidal to embracing life again, and looking forward to the next day,” Watt said.
There were more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016, according to the VA National Suicide Data Report. Since the start of the Southeastern Guide Dogs program, Herman said none of their alumni have committed suicide.
“Service dogs provide a sense of safety. They routinely patrol the perimeter of a room. They remind a veteran when to take their meds. They turn on a light during a nightmare. They nudge the veteran when someone is approaching. They stand in front of the veteran when someone comes too close, if someone invades his comfort zone. All intended to give him a sense of safety and security and of course companionship,” Doug Brown said.
Sometimes, veterans will connect with a dog and notice a difference within 24 hours, said Laska Parrow, head trainer for service dogs at Southeastern Guide Dogs. One veteran told her he slept through the night for the first time in years when he got his service dog.
“The transformation is amazing. They’re much much more comfortable now that they have this dog and a trusted friend next to them.”
Watt encouraged fellow veterans who feel they might be struggling to reach out for help.
“It makes all the difference because you never hit quite the lows you had before you had the dog. They’re always there, propping you up always being with you 24/7. I think reaching out is the first step to getting better help,” Watt said.
While he’s benefited from other services, Watt credits Foley for filling in where other resources can’t help.
“I had a lot of good counseling and a lot of good therapy. Which, that, and steady round of medication, the three kind of go together and the dog really fills the gap,” Watt said.