Saving each other: One rescue dog’s story of love & hope

Heather O’Brien still remembers the day that Athena came into her life in Tucson, Arizona where she and her then husband were working for a construction company.

“A friend called our job site and said he’d found this little dog starving in the alley,” O’Brien recounts. “He had managed to get her into his truck and wanted us to see her.” O’Brien recalls she had been a breeder dog — one that was used to breed puppies for possibly a puppy mill and she was barely a pup still herself.

O’Brien had some experience with abused dogs and was taken by the scraggily little mutt that was huddled against a fence in the 130 degree weather of Arizona. The O’Brien’s immediately took the American Staffordshire terrier to a vet for care.

She named the dog with no body fat, scars and evidence of an extended womb Athena, for the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare.  “It’s funny because I didn’t want a dog,” she said. “We were travelling and had two cats already in a tiny apartment.” But Athena needed O’Brien and her husband.

She remembers saying that she “could stay one night on the couch.” That was six years ago and a lot has changed in that time. O’Brien nursed her back to health and made Athena a family member.

American Staffordshire Terriers are distant cousins of the pit bull and have some similar looks but are quite a different breed of animal and naturally inclined to be good family helpers. According to the American Staffordshire Terrier Rescue website these dogs are a good service dog and very gentle companions.

The site includes: “The American Staffordshire Terrier is an affectionate, stable breed that makes a wonderful family dog. Staffordshire Terriers are friendly and great with kids. A Staffordshire terrier is obedient and very eager to please. A Staffordshire terrier makes an excellent guard dog while still being exceptionally gentle towards children. “
O’Brien shared, “I felt after her abandonment that it was my job to protect her.” And, that’s exactly what O’Brien did. Athena had to have surgeries and a hysterectomy because her uterus was stretched. She was covered in marks. “I had to wait for the fur to grow back on parts of her body and put lotion on her paws but it was all worth it,” O’Brien commented.

Just when life seemed to be moving in a positive direction and Athena’s health stabilized, O’Brien faced her own personal crisis. “My husband and I decided to split up after almost 12 years together,” she added. It set her into an emotional tailspin she didn’t see coming.  “They say divorce is more difficult than a death,” O’Brien said. “Athena was there with me and provided me a very natural, calming energy.”

O’Brien was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was prescribed several medications.  She just broke down and found that Athena was the only comfort she could find. Her doctor told her that she could designate Athena a service animal to stay with her and help her through her crisis. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the diagnosis of PTSD makes a disabled person eligible to take their service dog with them at all times. Many veterans’ that return from war adopt service animals as companions to help them adjust to life again.

According the United States Dog Registry Service Dogs  “help with performing a function for a person that is limited by a disability.”There are two other classifications — emotional support dogs and therapy dogs. According to the website, “Emotional support dogs help individuals with emotional problems by providing comfort and support,” and  “Therapy dogs provide affection and comfort to individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities.”

These dogs are help to calling of helping injured people. “Staffordshire terriers in the 1800s helped to tend to little children and watched over family babies,” O’Brien shared.

She also said that in the 1970’s TIME magazine did an article on pit bull terriers that demonized the entire breed of terriers. “They may look similar to pit bulls,” she shared. “But in reality Staffordshire terriers are actually great service dogs.”

So, O’Brien had Athena registered as a service dog. Athena travels with her and has helped her get off of any medicines, and thrives again.  Bob Walmsley, O’Brien’s dad, feels the dog saved his daughter’s life. “Training as an emotional support dog, she rescued my daughter as much as she rescued Athena.”

Becoming a service animal was Athena’s calling, O’Brien feels she was meant to do this work. “Athena has a calming effect,” she said. “I’ve seen her calm crying babies, and comfort others in distress just by her presence.”  She has been O’Brien’s companion and service animal for several years now and travels with her everywhere. “Athena has been a phenomenal help to me overcoming depression because she’s by my side, and she helped me work through anxiety issues and is very emotionally in tune with me and helps me to re-focus,“ O’Brien explained.

Research shows that animals offer many therapeutic benefits to their owners. Pets can ease loneliness, reduce stress, promote social interaction, encourage exercise and playfulness, and provide unconditional love and affection. Caring for a pet may even help you live longer. So, it was a natural extension for Athena to become O’Brien’s service animal in her time of need.

O’Brien trained Athena using the Cesar Millan technique, known as the Dog Whisperer on the Animal Planet. He adheres to training regimens such as being calm and assertive, exercise routines for you and your dog, and achieving balance and harmony with your pet. “These terriers are misunderstood,” O’Brien explained. She shared what she’s learned in this journey for Athena to be her service animal. “These breeds and mixes of terriers are easy to rehabilitate and work with to become service animals; it’s important to understand that the terrier breed can be a great companion when trained properly and  treated well,” she said.

Athena proudly wears her service animal tags and vest. O’Brien hopes to educate people because she herself has had to take up the cause of education on this subject. Athena sits on the floor by her in restaurants and other public venues. She is her service animal and under the Disabilities Act she is entitled to have her with her at all times. She explained that on occasion that gets sticky. “Sometimes I have to educate people on this breed and her purpose for being with me,” she said.

O’Brien happily takes up the cause of her companion and is proud of the relationship they have forged together. O’Brien is a tattoo artist now and travels around the country on planes, trains and buses with Athena. She runs into some situations and takes each one as a chance to educate people about the benefits of the Staffordshire terrier breed and of service animals and their benefits. “I just want people to know how great these dogs can perform as service animals and how important it is to turn around the perception of these breeds and see them as the helpers they can be for anyone who needs a service dog,” she explained.

Athena has made a big difference to O’Brien and she knows they could too, to many people if given the chance. “Rescue these dogs and you’ll have benefits you can’t imagine,” she said. “With her by my side I don’t need medications — rescue them and they’ll serve you.”

People can adopt these as a service animal or just as pets. The Rescue Me website lists 12 Staffordshire Terriers available in Virginia, if interested in service dogs or pets. They can change lives.

O’Brien knows Athena changed her life. “She’s done so much for me, she’s not just my service dog, she’s so much more,” she said. “I rescued this little scraggily dog off the streets and then she turned around and rescued me right back.”

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