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Beline Obeid
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Special visitors inspire Destination Imagination team


Mary Anne Brush Staff Writer
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March 16, 2017
For Ryan Woodford, a police officer diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, life changed when he met his guardian angel.

Woodford was put on top of the Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs list when his symptoms grew so severe they interfered with his ability to function. His sleep was disturbed by nightmares and he faced crippling anxiety attacks.

Today, with the help of Wesson, his service dog, Woodford sleeps through the night medication free and is able to calm himself before anxiety attacks take over. He also is able to work again. While he resigned after seven years with the police force due to his PTSD, he recently opened a private security company. Wesson accompanies him to offsite client meetings as well as the office.

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Photo by Renee Landuyt Wesson, Ryan Woodford's medical service dog, is trained to know he is on duty whenever his service vest is on. When the vest is removed and Woodford gives the command "free dog," he knows his work day is done.
Woodford said Wesson senses his anxiety and alerts him to it before it escalates into a full-blown attack.

"If you don't do anything about anxiety, it can lead to panic attacks," he said.

Kneeling and placing his forehead to the dog's forehead, an exercise called "doming," helps Woodford break the cycle of anxiety. The German shepherd relieves Woodford of his hypervigilance by shielding him in public. He also senses if Woodford is about to have a nightmare, licking his face to wake him before the nightmare occurs.

During a visit Thursday, March 2, Woodford told his story to Pierce Middle School eighth-graders Jack Michaud, Elli Richter, Raegan Rybicki and Jacquelyn Wang, members of the Destination Imagination team, the Departed Dogs. As part of their service project outreach for this year's competition, the students set a goal to raise $2,000 to donate to Guardian Angels, a nonprofit that rescues, raises, trains and donates medical service and assistance dogs to mentally and/or physically impaired individuals.

This amount covers travel costs for a recipient of a medical service dog to go to Florida for training, according to Jolanthe Bassett, Guardian Angels' Michigan coordinator. Jill Richter, who coaches the team along with her husband, Tom Richter, said so far the students have raised $1,668 through bake sales, can and bottle drives and sales of car wash coupons. In addition, Principal Chris Clark has nominated the team for a Grosse Pointe Foundation for Public Education "Caught in the Act of Giving Back" award. If selected, the team will exceed their goal with an additional $500.

Helping veterans and first responders has personal meaning to the students, as each team member has a connection to a veteran, said Wang.

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Photo by Renee Landuyt Pictured with Ryan Woodford and his service dog, Wesson, are, from left, Raegan Rybicki, Jacqueline Wang, Elli Richter and Jack Michaud. The students are members of Pierce's Destination Imagination team, the Departed Dogs.
"We really wanted to honor our families as well as veterans," she said.

As dog lovers, the students also related to the way a dog's loyal companionship improves the quality of life.

"We all have dogs and we all know the benefits of having dogs," said Michaud. "They're like friends. You can talk to them whenever and they'll listen."

"There are 56 million Americans that have a disability. There are annually about 2,500 that are paired (with a service dog)," Woodford said to the students. "There is a big need .... So if more people could do what you're doing, it would really help."

The students had many questions for Woodford, including how he found out about Guardian Angels and why people shouldn't pet a service dog.

Woolford said he heard about the organization after suffering a panic attack in public.

"I like to say (Wesson) found me," Woodford said. "I'd read about service dogs for PTSD, but didn't really know anything about it."

A typical wait for a pairing is six months to a year and recipients are triaged according to need.

"The waiting list is exploding," said Bassett, adding they receive 30 to 40 requests a day. In the more than three years Guardian Angels has been in operation in Michigan, the nonprofit has paired nine veterans and two law enforcement officers with service dogs. Out of 180 recipients nationwide, there have been no suicide attempts reported "and marriages are staying together," Bassett said, compared to a 90 percent divorce rate within the population of disabled veterans suffering from PTSD nationwide.

As to why people shouldn't disturb a service dog at work, Bassett said, "You're taking the dog away from what he should be doing, which is paying attention to Ryan. You wouldn't take away a person's wheelchair, would you? It's kind of the same thing."

While Woodford said, "Technically, he's always working," Wesson does enjoy free time with Woodford at home.

"I have less of a need at home versus in public, so there's not as much work for him there," Woodford said.

Removal of his service vest and the command "free dog" alerts Wesson he is off duty.

"He's kind of a goofy dog. But with his vest on, he's very serious," Woodford said.

The Departed Dogs team competes in the Region 2 tournament Saturday, March 18, at Saline Middle School. The top three finishers in the middle level — grades 6 to 8 — in each category qualify for the state competition at Central Michigan University April 8. The top two finishers at states proceed to the global finals May 24 to 27 in Knoxville, Tenn.

The team qualified for the global competition the past two years, placing 12th last year and making it onto the top 10 leader board two years ago, according to Wang. She and teammates Richter and Rybicki have competed together since they were fourth-graders at Trombly Elementary School, with Michaud joining them this year.

Each competition presents new challenges. The twist for this year is for teams to present their service project in the form of a fable. In addition to costumes and an "impact prop," the 8-minute theatrical and creative presentation in front of judges must include an active change by one of the characters, according to Jill Richter.

In the Departed Dogs' fable, animal characters represent chance, change, hope and unity, with an eagle symbolizing a soldier. By the fable's end, a dog — representing hope — meets the eagle and transforms into an angel.

Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit for the charitable purpose of rescuing, raising, training and donating medical service dogs to people with mental or physical disabilities. Go to medi calservicedogs.com to find out more. People interested in making a donation, sponsoring a dog or volunteering their talents should call (248) 904-0579.

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