The healing power of service animals

Woman’s journey to recovery fosters healing for military veterans, first responders


Nestled down a long dirt road in rural Franklin County, Washington, sits a rather unassuming dog training school. The sign reads, “Mattox Dog Training Academy,” and is next door to Service Peace Warriors and a humble 1,200-square-foot home. The dog training academy, Service Peace Warriors and home all belong to Mary Mattox, an equally unassuming woman who is doing remarkable things for our nation’s military veterans and first responders.

Mary’s story begins decades ago when she was illegally brought to the United States as a pregnant teenager to traffic her baby. Her childhood and teen experiences scarred her deeply, in ways that would take her years to understand. However, it was from this trauma that Mary rose up to start Service Peace Warriors, a 501(c)(3) organization that provides service dogs to military veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other service-related medical issues.

Mary has always loved animals. She and her husband own hundreds of acres adjacent to their home that they have farmed and used to raise animals. When her son, Chance was growing up, he was involved in 4-H, showing goats and dogs. For over 21 years, Mary volunteered with 4-H to support Chance and other youth.

Mary Mattox is doing remarkable things for our nation’s military veterans and first responders.
Mary Mattox is doing remarkable things for our nation’s military veterans and first responders.

It was during that season of life when Mary experienced a massive PTSD episode, a symptom of the complex PTSD that she developed from her childhood trauma. The episode temporarily caused Mary to go completely blind and deaf. At the time, she was in her living room, and no one else was awake – except the dog.

Chance’s dog, Cloud, was trained for competitive 4-H showing but was not a service support animal. However, Cloud sensed that Mary was in crisis. He came and laid his body alongside her. Mary touched Cloud and held on to his fur. Together, they slowly worked their way to the other end of the house where Mary’s husband was asleep. It took three hours to move the short distance.

Each time Mary felt she could not go any farther, Cloud would gently put his head next to hers. When Mary and Cloud got to the bedroom, Mary’s husband quickly realized something was wrong. He rushed her to the emergency room where doctors assessed Mary. Her heart rate was through the roof, and doctors were surprised Mary had not experienced a cardiac emergency. Mary gives Cloud the credit for saving her life, both for leading her to her husband and for keeping her calm enough to get to the hospital.

THE BEGINNINGS OF AN IDEA

After this major episode, Mary started researching services dogs. Her primary care physician did not know a lot about service animals but was willing to support her in this journey. Equipped with more knowledge, Mary trained her first dog, Sky. The benefit of having a service dog was life-changing for Mary. And this got her thinking, what if she could train service dogs for others battling PTSD, maybe our military veterans.

Mary and Chance chose to focus their efforts on our nation’s veterans because the pair believes the freedoms we enjoy in America are the result of the service and sacrifice of veterans. Mary’s initial goal was to train six dogs a year. In her first year, she trained four dogs, the next year eight dogs, and Service Peace Warriors took off.

Mary and Chance converted their old 4-H goat barn into Service Peace Warriors dog care kennel. Mary began developing relationships with local businesses that understood and supported her vision. Local and area businesses stepped up to offer free and discounted rates on dog food, complimentary housing for visiting veterans and help with paying veterinarian expenses. A Washington dog rescue also gave Mary first pick on service-qualified breeds.

Dog training is expensive. From puppy to service animal, the costs can mount up to $32,000. Veterans pay nothing. Mary generates the funding for the services dogs through fundraising, donations and grants. Mary and Chance knew that these funding sources would not be enough. To cover the shortfall, they started Mattox Dog Training Academy, a dog training school for anyone looking for help with general dog obedience.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Over the past couple of years, Mary learned of the vicarious and direct trauma that first responders experience every day on the job. The effects of the normal day-to-day stressors compounded with the added stress of COVID-19 and civil unrest got her and Chance thinking, why not equip firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers with service animals.

However, because Service Peace Warriors receives donations and grants specifically for veterans, they could not use those funds for first responder service animals. They instead used their profits from Mattox Dog Training Academy to provide service dogs to two Washington police officers.

Service Peace Warriors and Mattox Dog Training Academy clients often return to Mary’s training facilities to share a cup of coffee, train with their dogs and volunteer. When I visited Service Peace Warriors, I had the opportunity to speak with a veteran and a first responder who had both been helped by Mary’s program.

I saw how Mary’s property created a space of safety and comfort for her clients to lay aside their emotional body armor and be real. Mary shared the story of a veteran and his wife who came to Service Peace Warriors to start the dog training program. While there, the veteran opened up, began to smile and engaged in conversation. The veteran’s wife told Mary that was the first time in 10 years that her husband had opened up like that.

Service Peace Warriors has grown since its inception. This past year, Mary and Chance were able to train and partner 18 service dogs with veterans and first responders. Mary hopes to surpass 20 service dogs in 2022.

Veterans and first responders who are interested can apply for a service dog by going to https://servicepeacewarriors.org/applications. People can also contact Service Peace Warriors via email at info@servicepeacewarriors.org.

Service Peace Warriors and Mattox Dog Training Academy are continually looking for financial donors who want to support veterans and first responders. Readers who want to donate to this remarkable cause can visit https://servicepeacewarriors.org/donate.

NEXT: 'I want to be Jared again!”: An officer’s story of trauma and the process of healing

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