Service Dog Brings Veteran Healing and Support

Dustin was looking for a way to heal from PTSD, then a dog named Nigel helped him make strides toward a new start.

Dustin + Nigel

A veteran named Dustin was diagnosed with PTSD and depression after deployment and needed support to move forward in his life. Together with a service dog named Nigel, Dustin made strides toward healing and hope and embraced a fresh start.

"When I started the Shelter to Soldier program with Nigel, I was still closed off to the world and didn’t want to open up. Each training session I had, I was able to grow and take down my walls."

My name is Dustin, and I would like to share my story and how a dog saved my life. I joined the Army in 2002 and in 2003, I was deployed to Iraq during the first invasion. My job was Mortuary Affairs. I would wash and process the personal belongings of fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. As I moved up in ranks, my duties changed as well. The next job I had was processing the remains of fallen soldiers. I would wash and prepare fallen soldiers for burial.


In 2013, I was diagnosed with PTSD with onset Major Depressive Disorder. I was having panic attacks, nightmares, night terrors, hypervigilance, anxiety, and I was isolating myself from friends and family. It was very difficult for me to talk to someone who did not share the same experiences as I did. Now out of the military and away from any support, I had my first suicidal thoughts. I remember sitting in my car deciding if I was going to end my life to stop the emotional pain. I started having more panic attacks, I was calling off work a lot, my job performance was declining, and my relationships began to suffer. 

I started to do some research and found nonprofits that would give me a service dog for free. I qualified for all the programs, but they all had a one-to-two-year waiting list. I didn’t know if I would be around the next day. I had an immediate need, so I reached out to Shelter to Soldier—and within a few weeks, I was meeting potential dogs. 

During one of my matching sessions, Nigel walked in the gate and we had an instant connection. I knew he was going to be my service dog. When I started the Shelter to Soldier program with Nigel, I was still closed off to the world and didn’t want to open up. Each training session I had, I was able to grow and take down my walls. The biggest factor was that my trainer as well as most of the staff are prior service people, which gave me the comfort to open up and grow. During the course of my program, I have overcome many obstacles that I would never have been able to address without the support of Shelter to Soldier and Nigel by my side every step of the way.

Because of Shelter to Soldier and Nigel, I am able to live a normal life again. Most recently with Nigel by my side, I was able to finish my master’s degree and I am now at the tail end of earning my doctorate. This would not have been possible if not for the Shelter to Soldier program allowing me to adopt a service dog at no cost. Nigel and I just want to say thank you to Shelter to Soldier for your continued support for veterans and dogs in need. 

Each year, Petco Love Stories invites adopters to share how their pets have changed their lives to give the organizations that they’ve adopted from the chance to receive grant awards. This story by Dustin won Shelter to Soldier, Inc. in San Diego, California a 2021 Love Stories award.