How can dogs provide help to our former troops? We spoke with NFL player Eric Decker and his wife and country music star, Jessie James Decker, to hear about their work on behalf of a foundation that retrains shelter dogs as service dogs.
What inspired you to start the Eric and Jessie Foundation?
Eric Decker: In 2013, when I was playing for the Denver Broncos, we attended an event and heard military veteran Lon Hodge share his unique story. Lon served in the military from 1973 to 1981. He spoke about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and how a service dog named Gander turned his world around for the better as a civilian.
Jessie James Decker: We had been searching for a cause for our foundation to support. It brought tears to our eyes. We thought, “This is it. This is what we have to do.” It was a perfect fit for us as we love animals and I grew up in a military family.
Can you explain your work with Deckers Dogs and Freedom Service Dogs?
ED: We chose to work with Freedom Service Dogs (FSD), based in Colorado, as we liked the fact that they worked with shelter dogs to train them to “unleash” their potential to be service dogs. While they train dogs for a variety of needs, we focused on the dogs in Operation Freedom, which partner with military veterans who returned to civilian life with visible and invisible disabilities.
JJD: The training is very specialized for every dog, and one of the final steps is for them to train in a home environment. When FSD moved to a larger facility, we underwrote the training apartment where they learn tasks such as opening and closing a refrigerator, pulling someone up to a sitting position in bed, and behaving in an airplane.
How do these dogs improve the quality of life for the veterans you work with?
JJD: Simply put, they help remove the boundaries that make life tough for our veterans. Many veterans struggle with extreme social anxiety and stay indoors as much as possible. That makes working out of the home or just running errands very difficult. The dogs are trained to watch their partners’ “six,” which means to watch their back. If they see someone approaching too fast or too close, they move to their back and block.
ED: The dogs are trained to nudge veterans to interrupt flashbacks and nightmares, and, as Jess said, create a buffer zone around them to reduce anxiety in public places, and more. It gives the veteran the comfort that allows them to enjoy their lives.
As public figures, how have you both been able to use your platforms to bring attention to this important cause?
ED: While I was playing in the NFL, they allowed us to wear unique cleats with our causes painted on them. The NFL often allowed me to share this message as a Salute to Service and Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner.
JJD: Country music fans are the best fans. They have supported our foundation since the start, and even wear foundation shirts to my shows to represent!
How important are your dogs for your family?
ED: Well, they are family. Jake and Jenny Gump are amazing golden retrievers who are so wonderful with our kids. They are gentle but playful, and the kids adore them.
JJD: I think it is so important for kids to grow up around animals. It teaches them patience, loyalty, and responsibility for caring for them.
With the holidays coming up, what advice do you have for pet safety in the home (food spills, visitors, decorations, etc.)?
ED: We have a pretty strict rule of no feeding from the table, but with little kids….
JJD: Things do land on the floor. For years we have posted a list of Thanksgiving hazards on the foundation’s Facebook page to remind people of some dangers like nuts and turkey bones and skin. I think it’s important just knowing your animals’ personalities and helping them enjoy the holidays by either having them right in the middle of the excitement and chaos like ours are, or having a quiet spot for them away from the noise if they need it.