August 1, 2023

I Wasn’t Looking for Another Service Dog. That’s When I Found One.

For years, my service dog Axel rarely left my side. Whether taking a quick trip to the gas station or boarding a plane bound for halfway across the country, Axel was there, a steady and steadfast presence who often recognized my symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder before I did.

After nearly a decade together, I knew Axel deserved a rest. He retired without ceremony a couple of years after I founded a nonprofit that put into practice all the lessons I’d learned as both a handler and working for other organizations that provide psychological service dogs to military veterans.

By then, Axel had given me the strength to embrace the world around me. While he enjoyed a retired life of quiet walks and long afternoon naps, I lived the life he made possible. There had been a time when I could barely leave the basement of my family’s home, when nightmares plagued me, when something as seemingly simple as dinner out triggered a flashback to my time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Axel changed everything. Axel changed me. And even though I learned to do things without him that once seemed impossible, the knowledge that he was waiting for me at the end of each day made them possible.

It has been said that the breadth of a dog’s life is his only fault. Axel died in January at age 14, and in the grief-blurred weeks that followed, I tried to adjust to the silence of his absence. Pain filled the empty spaces; there was no room for so much as the thought of another service dog.

It was, thankfully, a busy time for Leashes of Valor. A month after Axel died, we moved into a new facility in Fredericksburg. A home located on 10 acres, it provided for the first time a place where we could host our warrior classes—10 days of immersive training for veterans and their new service dogs. We decided to call it Axel’s Place.

It has been said, too, that surprise is the greatest gift life can grant us. A few weeks after moving into Axel’s Place, one of our service dog trainers learned about a hoarding situation in a neighboring county. An elderly woman had inadvertently ended up with 28 Golden Retriever puppies (along with a menagerie of other animals) and was at risk of intervention by the local authorities.

We talked and decided on bringing two into our training program. That turned to four and then six. It was a scramble, but our new community rallied, donating supplies and money and time. Our trainers quickly put together a kennel on our new property. Volunteers signed up for puppy shifts, and our employees took them home at night. The puppies brought with them all the joy of new life—endless snuggles and early-morning wake-ups, energy and promise and so much work. They infused and invigorated us. In many ways, they healed us.

A few days after their arrival, we got down to the business of naming them. We’d ended up with five girls and one boy. The girls we’d call Martha, Grace, Ruby, May, and Ski. The boy we’d call Maverick, a name picked by Courage and Sacrifice, an organization that would cover the cost of his entire two years of training.

Leashes of Valor founder and CEO Jason Haag with Maverick.

I can’t tell you when exactly it happened. Perhaps it was during one of those early morning wake-ups, or puppy playtime, or one afternoon when Maverick sprawled across my lap on the couch. But I can tell you this much with certainty: Maverick looked at me and I knew.

He would be my new service dog.

There was something about his face, something about the shape of his eyes and how he looked at me. I can’t explain it, really. Except to say that it felt unhesitatingly right.

Axel is part of my history. His pawprints are on everything we do. They are there as I step into the future, Maverick by my side.

Retired Marine Corps Capt. Jason Haag is founder and CEO of Leashes of Valor.