The Dogtopia Foundation partnered with Next Step Service Dogs to bring together returned veteran Anthony Torres and his field golden retriever, Tillman.
Torres served as a U.S. Marine for six years. Following his years of service, he returned home and connected with Next Step Service Dogs, an organization focused on providing trained service dogs to veterans, Gina Esoldi, Program Director with Next Step Service Dogs, united Torres with Tillman and guided him through the training process.
“We meet on a weekly basis,” said Esoldi. “Once they do their formal application and enter the Next Step program, we meet two to three times a week. As soon as they leave that program, they leave to their own living situation. We meet a couple times a week until they get possession of their dog, pass their access test, and then certify.”
Many of Next Step’s dogs are career change dogs. This means they have gone through training to be a guide dog but were unable to meet the stringent standards necessary for this level of support.
“A lot of dogs that Next Step receives are guide dogs for the blind, career change dogs that are not suitable to serve a person with little to no vision,” said Esoldi. “However, they’re wonderful, wonderful dogs. They come to us with their basic obedience and then we task train them.”
On some occasions, as was the case with Tillman, Next Step Service Dogs receives a puppy enrolling in training to live alongside of a returned veteran. When Torres met Tillman, he knew he met the dog that was going to change his world. Although Esoldi was hesitant about Tillman’s career path with Next Step Service Dogs, Torres was up for the challenge of training a puppy.
“They give us the basic tools to reinforce their obedience,” said Torres about Next Step Service Dogs. Torres felt confident training Tillman because he knew he had a strong support system behind him.
After graduating from training, Torres and Tillman officially began life together.
“It’s night and day,” said Torres of his life with Tillman. “Being at the lowest of lows, to meeting those dogs and working at that program and then meeting Tilly; it gives you a new sense of purpose and something to focus on other than yourself.”
Tillman has impacted Torres’s life in numerous ways. He now feels confident and plays a more active role in his community. Tillman keeps him going.
“He’s that number one spot in my life and I need to make sure he’s taken care of,” said Torres.
The Dogtopia Foundation wants to thank Next Step Service Dogs for their partnership in providing trained service dogs to returned veterans. It is through partners like Next Steps that we are enabling dogs to positively change our world.