Most dogs love a good car ride, so it’s probably fair to say that Princess Star enjoys her new job as a service dog to paramedic and Army veteran Louis Belluomini of Toledo, Ohio. The 1-year-old lab/golden retriever mix accompanies him to work each day and even has her own “cubby” space on the ambulance.
But Star’s most important job of all is helping Belluomini combat his PTSD.
Belluomini, who served 9 years as a military police officer in the Army, was diagnosed with PTSD after his first tour. Upon coming home, he experienced a number of symptoms — particularly nightmares and sleepwalking — that made his transition home more difficult.
Belluomini initially used medication to manage the symptoms, but recognized that it wasn’t a long-term solution. Apart from health risks, the medication was making him feel foggy and numb.
When Belluomini and his wife learned that they had a baby on the way, they decided it was time to explore alternative options. He had heard many positive things about service dogs, so he reached out to K9s For Warriors.
He attended the September 2016 class at the K9s For Warriors campus in Ponte Vedra, FL. The training is a 120-hour, three-week intensive in which veterans are paired up with dogs that have spent months learning specific commands to help their owners.
The participants are pushed outside of their comfort zones, into situations like malls and crowded events that often trigger PTSD, so that they learn how to use their service dogs properly.
An example of one of those specific commands would be “block,” where a dog creates a barrier between their owner and an oncoming person to reduce anxiety. In the case of Belluomini, Star was also taught to “have his back” — literally. Belluomini told Toledo ABC 13’s news crew:
“As members of the military we are trained to watch our back and our partner’s back. By having her I don’t have to ever worry that someone is behind me because she is always watching behind me.”
Once Belluomini passed his assessment and graduated the program with Star, it was time for them to head home. He had been working in the EMS field for nearly 15 years, with the last few being certified as a paramedic and working for ProMedica.
Star began going to work with Belluomini, accompanying him on the ambulance and looking out for him while he looks out for other people.
“Star has helped me continue to do my job and help others,” Belluomini told PupJournal. “She understands when I’m good and when I’m not, and protects my well-being as a person.”
He went on to describe situations where they have dealt with psychotic patients who are acting aggressively, where Star knows when it’s appropriate to react. Her sole job is making sure Belluomini is okay, and she doesn’t interfere with his work unless he needs her.
However, it’s the quieter times in Belluomini’s life when he really needs Star. She is trained to wake him up at night during nightmares or when he is sleepwalking — which is sometimes 2-3 times per night.
Star also provides support while Belluomini is driving, something that still gives him anxiety. Whenever she senses that he needs a little extra comfort, she will place her head on his lap.
PupJournal spoke with K9 For Warriors’ Education Manager, Samantha Epstein, who said that Star was “a very bright dog” during her training. It was clear from the beginning that Star — who was donated to the program as a young pup after her active military owner was deployed — was a special girl.
In fact, most of K9 For Warriors’ dogs are rescues. Epstein said that K9 For Warriors has a team of people who go to shelters and pull dogs — sometimes within moments of being euthanized. The rescues are then assessed by professional trainers to see if they meet the criteria of becoming a service dog.
“Not every dog can be a service dog,” Epstein told PupJournal. “Some dogs don’t want to ‘work,’ and therefore aren’t ideal candidates. If they don’t meet the criteria, they are adopted out within the community — we don’t just take them back to the shelter.”
Star has no problem working, though. Since starting with Belluomini a few weeks ago, she rides with him on the ambulance and stays with him while he works. She acts as an alert system when someone is approaching from behind so Belluomini isn’t caught off-guard, and maintains a barrier if he needs space.
But most of all, she provides him with comfort and support that only another living being — perhaps even only a dog — is capable of doing.
Belluomini told PupJournal:
“There’s a lot of stigma attached to veterans with PTSD. People who don’t understand, people who tell you to ‘get over it,’ or people who think it’s not even real. It makes it difficult to ask for help sometimes. Star doesn’t care what other people think or say — she just wants to give love. I wish more people could be like that.”
The K9s For Warriors’ program was started in 2011 by Shari Duval and has helped countless veterans transition back to civilian life and manage symptoms of PTSD. Duval’s own son was diagnosed with PTSD after coming back from working with bomb detection dogs in the war as a civilian contractor, prompting her to start the organization to help veterans with similar issues.
Belluomini never set out to tell his story, but seeing the positive effects that Star has had on his life already — and seeing the effects of PTSD on countless service men and women — has prompted him to be more vocal about his experience.
“The K9s For Warriors program has done so much for me. There are so many more out there, some who don’t even realize they are experiencing PTSD. If I can help even one person by sharing my experience, it’s my duty to do that.”
For now, Belluomini is far less concerned with stigma and more focused on what’s best for his family and himself. He says, “Sometimes all you need is a little bit of love and someone who has your back” — and for him, that’s Princess Star.