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On a pleasant June afternoon, 27-year-old Jason Harmon is walking his dog George on the sidewalks of Missouri State University in Springfield. At home, this yellow Lab plays the role of pet for him, his wife and two young sons. But on campus, donning what Harmon calls George’s work jacket that reads “working dog, do not pet,” this service dog is ready and willing to protect, guide and inspire Harmon while in the classroom and amongst society.
In 2007, Harmon; a southwest Missouri native, was serving his country alongside his fellow Marines in Fallujah, where car bombs were commonplace and his unit under constant threat of an ambush. He managed to avoid any physical injuries that have plagued so many service members from war, but like so many other returning soldiers, the complications are mental.
“The effects of the explosions and what not, they can take a very unique toll on people individually,” Harmon said.
Diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, Harmon struggled during rehab, likening the process to running up a muddy hill, where he’d take 10 steps up, but fall 30 steps back. In 2010, officials determined that Harmon’s TBI had rendered him unfit to return to battle, and he retired from the Marines.
“You had found, kind of like your… what you were trained to do and that was what made you very happy in life. And to, kind of like, have that taken away from you at a choosing that wasn’t yours, it just didn’t seem right to me and I hated it.”
Harmon had never even seen a service dog, let alone think they could be a solution to his problem, but was inspired shortly after retirement when he observed the help a dog provided another veteran who had a similar mental disorder. Excited but hesitant about if he could benefit too, Harmon got involved with a program called Puppies Behind Bars, where dogs; beginning at eight weeks old, are trained by prisoners, who ultimately train veterans on how to work with these dogs, before these former service members are paired with a service animal.
“The last six months of the dog’s training program, they will train the dog to suit your individual needs. So by the time they graduate from the program the dog has about 100 commands down pat.”
Harmon’s dog George was trained at a prison in New York State. That’s where they met just over a year ago for a two week session before George was brought to live with his new family in the Ozarks. At first, Harmon was unconvinced that this dog was the solution; until the two were sent into the city, where Harmon says the effects of the training really started to show.
Having served on the front lines of Fallujah, Harmon brought home a propensity to spot many of what he considers threats, be it a crack in the concrete, random people, or an open window. George knew this, and while inside a New York museum, earned Harmon’s trust.
“If I anticipated a threat; or what I would presume to be a threat from a certain area, he would go to that direction and create a barrier between me and somebody else. The term is called blocking; and so basically creating a personal space for me.”
Back on the Missouri State campus, George retrieves a tennis ball thrown by his owner. Even when he’s playing, George’s methods are succinct and with purpose. Harmon says his yellow Labrador is now up to 105 commands, including….
“George, got my back?,” asks Harmon.
When his back is turned, George positions himself beside Harmon’s feet, facing the other direction to be on the lookout, and escort anyone that approaches around Harmon. There’s also…
“Georgie, behind? So then if like we’re in a crowd or something like that I can get him tucked in behind me so then he doesn’t get run over.”
And then there’s….
“Get busy,” commands Harmon.
HARVEY: “So that’s the command to go to the bathroom: get busy?”
“Yup, get busy, yeah,” Harmon chuckles.
Among other things, George will carry papers from Harmon’s desk to the instructor, can push the button to activate a building’s automatic door opener, and even call 911 in the event of an emergency.
Having recently earned his Bachelors in Construction Management from Missouri State, Harmon is now pursuing a Masters in Project Management, and George has been there to guide him along the way, especially when Harmon’s mind begins to wander during a lecture.
“Instead of focusing on that and taking your mind out of school, he would redirect it. George could, he could sense these things, and so he could do something as simple as he’d give me a little nudge, or he’d put his head on my lap or something like that. And so you could pet him and take some of the stress out of it, and refocus your attention onto what you were doing.”
Just over a year ago, Harmon was in what he called a tailspin, and feels that could still be the case today had a service dog not come into his life. The companionship George brings throughout the day, and the unconditional love he provides at home, has brought Harmon that peace he’s desired after seeing so much evil during war.
“Whenever he came along and stuff like that, it’s like you start seeing these avenues, that ‘hey there is a possibility over here.’ It’s kind of like adding a little bit of inspiration one day at a time, and really being able to take in the beauty of a day.”
For KSMU news, I’m Scott Harvey.