When Michael Oulavong came home from the Marine Corps, he wasn't able to make the same transition as some of his peers. Initially, he found success training as an EMT and firefighter, but ran into troubles when old Marine Corps injuries derailed his plans.
He sank further into his mental funk and started experiencing more symptoms of his PTSD. He needed a change and he needed a friend. That's when he met Zoe.
Marine veteran Michael Oulavong deployed.
"My plan literally just fell apart and, being a Marine, I need to prepare for everything," he said. "I have everything planned out... ...I didn't plan for this injury and for this doctor to be like, 'You shouldn't be a firefighter.' That's when I was like, 'Well, crap. I'm in this black hole right now. I'm just stuck. I don't know what to do.' ...I was in a rut. I was dealing with depression, suicidal thoughts. I was lonely."
Oulavong knew that he needed a change, and he heard about Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation's program to pair rescue dogs with veterans and teach the veteran to train the animal to be a service dog. It meant that Oulavong could get a service dog to help with his symptoms nearly for free.
And that's a huge deal. Service dogs can change the trajectory of a veteran's life, but costs can also top $15,000 for a single animal.
Oulavong signed up and was surprised by how quickly he was paired with Zoe, a mixed-breed dog that clearly has a lot of German Shepherd blood.
"... the day that I first met her, it was, to be honest, it was just kind of like meeting a stranger," he said "It was just like, 'Hey, there's a dog. Shoot, I guess this is my dog.' It was kind of overwhelming when I initially met her because it was like, 'Okay, now I have another living thing to take care of.'"
Michael Oulavong and service dog, Zoe, at the pet store.
Zoe and Oulavong met just two weeks after he signed up for the program, but he quickly became worried about the financial obligations of owning a dog. Even though he had received Zoe for free, he knew that taking care of animals can get expensive. That's when Purina Dog Chow, which partners with the Animal Rescue Fondation to help cover some of the costs of the program and of the individual animals, stepped in.
"I was like, 'I can't afford this type of thing, but thank you,'" he said. "Thanks to Merritt [Rollins, ARF Veterans program manager] and to ARF and Purina, everything, they calmed those nerves down pretty quickly. You get free food for the rest of your dog's life. They take me to Pet Food Express, and the program paid for everything the dog needed, from their poop bags to its crate to her food to everything else."
And so Zoe and Oulavong started training. Luckily for him, Zoe stood out during training for her calm and for ability to learn quickly.
Michael Oulavong and Zoe on the day of their graduation from Basic Manners I.
"It was easy to train her," Oulavong said. "It took work. I spent every day doing it, but compared to the other dogs in the program — not trying to talk bad about them — Zoe really made them look, seriously, she made them look like kids, but she was the adult."
Some of the training is basic obedience work, but dogs and veterans who stick with the program will graduate to full-on service dog status, with the dogs properly trained to identify and interrupt panic attacks and other episodes in their nascent stages.
"When I do have those instances of having a panic attack or feeling very anxious and everything, I have certain tells in my body," Oulavong explained. "So, that's what the program has been training us to do. Say it was shaking my leg, or punching my fist, or grinding my teeth, or what not, she'll sense that and she'll come up and dig her head under me, or lick me, or kiss me."
With Zoe around, Oulavong has someone protecting him from descending into a dark spiral, and someone to take care of, giving him a purpose that he compares to his time as a Marine. Between those two factors, he's been able to better transition into the civilian world, getting a job at a Japanese restaurant as a bartender and server.
Michael Oulavong and Zoe
"...everyday I PT with Zoe every morning," Oulavong explained. "We go for about anywhere between a mile and three mile walk, depending on how I feel that morning. She helps me keep active. I go for a walk with her every day. I just spend time with her. Five times a day, I do at least five to ten minutes simple, basic training with her, just to keep her refreshed."
Right now, Purina is holding a fundraiser it calls the "Service Dog Salute." As part of the fundraiser, for every bag of specially marked Dog Chow sold, including bags that feature Michael and Zoe, Purina will donate the Animal Rescue Foundation, giving up to $250,000. They'll be giving up to another $250,000 based on how many people share the Buzzfeed video above.