Nathan Fischer got lost in a flashback.
He doesn’t know what triggered it, but the 33-year-old Army veteran was with his 6-year-old daughter when he felt stuck in a memory of an explosion from his service in Iraq. But as he descended into the past, Spanky, his 4-year-old pit bull-terrier mix and service dog, was there to pull him back.
“He just sat with me while I had this 1,000-yard stare,” Fischer says. “He never looked away. He understood what was going on and was there the whole time. That’s when I knew I had a connection with him. That’s when I knew we were battle buddies.”
Looking a bit like Petey from The Little Rascals, Spanky came to Fischer as part of Pets for Vets, which partners veterans with service dogs. Part of a national nonprofit organization, the Las Vegas chapter has been around about three years.
Portia Spann, a spokeswoman with the local chapter, said veterans find the nonprofit through multiple avenues, from social media and television spots to recommendations from Veterans Affairs clinics. Fischer found the organization through his VA counselor.
“I really wanted a dog to be by my side who could settle me down, search areas or check around corners for me first. They hit the nail on the head with Spanky.”–Nathan Fischer, Army veteran
He joined the military in 2005 and served until 2010, when he was medically retired. During that time, he was stationed in Iraq. His life changed on the night of Father’s Day in 2007 when he survived an improvised explosive device.
“I don’t remember too much,” he says. “I just remember waking up in a hospital. I was never the same person since that night.”
After returning to Las Vegas, he faced a rough transition. The economy was still rocky. He went through a divorce. His mental state was shaky. During therapy, he started to consider getting a service dog through Pets for Vets.
The process starts with a conversation to help the organization get to know the veteran and what they need better.
“Some of the veterans like to take long walks or go hiking,” Spann says. “If you’re the type who likes to hike a mountain, then a Chihuahua might not be the best choice.” Spann adds that the dogs go through a minimum of eight weeks of training, though it can take up to a few months depending on what skill set they need. It’s all done by Pets for Vets volunteers and staff.
For Fischer, Spanky was trained to lead and check around corners and offer emotional support.
“My daughter calls [Spanky] her little brother.”–Nathan Fischer
“Because I have severe PTSD, I don’t do well in large crowds and don’t do well with loud [noises],” Fischer says. “I really wanted a dog to be by my side who could settle me down, search areas or check around corners for me first. They hit the nail on the head with Spanky.”
After a dog is trained, the nonprofit sets up a first meeting before the veteran takes the pet home. “We don’t just drop the dog off,” Spann says.
Once the service dog goes home with the veteran, the organization gives them pet food and supplies and follows up to provide long-term care.
Spanky has been with Fischer for about a year and has been incorporated into the family.
“My daughter calls him her little brother,” Fischer says.
Every morning, it’s usually Spanky’s wet, slobbering tongue that wakes Fischer up. “And then he stays by my side the entire day,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter if he is hungry or thirsty. He won’t even go downstairs to get food until I go downstairs. And if I go back upstairs before he has eaten, he will quickly eat and rush back up to me.”
As much as Spanky is there to help when times get rough for Fischer, he is also there making the family laugh.
“We are kind of like Rob & Big,” Fischer says, referring to the MTV show following professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdek and his now-deceased bodyguard named Christopher “Big Black” Boykin. “We are serious when we need to be. But when we’re not serious, we are the two biggest goofballs.”