By Jim Diamond
It started out as a tweet of a picture of an adorable Yellow Labrador Retriever sitting on the glass at Friday night’s Nashville Predators season opening game against the Chicago Blackhawks, and the legend of Annie the service dog has been growing ever since.
As Annie rested underneath a patio table at a Brentwood Starbucks lapping up a puppuchino, Josh Ray, Annie’s owner, was asked how she is handling her newfound fame.
“I can’t believe that it happened,” Ray said. “It just blew up.”
Due to many requests, Annie, who will turn 2 January 1st, now has her own Twitter account.
Of course with all of this attention, Annie did need to do some shopping in hopes of going incognito when she wanted some privacy.
Ray is a veteran of the United States Air Force. He loaded and programmed weapons on F-16 aircraft. Ray’s tenure with the Air Force ended with a medical discharge. During his military career, he was deployed twice and achieved the ranking of Staff Sergeant.
In his post military career, Ray works with organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project and Hockey Saves.
Ray’s association with Hockey Saves was the reason he and Annie were on the glass Friday night. A Wisconsin native and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Ray had the opportunity to meet Badgers head hockey coach Tony Granato at a recent golf event. Granato told Ray to let him know if he ever needed anything. Granato and the university donated some equipment to Hockey Saves. Hockey Saves arranged for Ray and Annie to attend the Predators’ Meet the Team event earlier last week and to attend Friday’s game.
Despite being from Wisconsin, Ray did not become a hockey fan until after his move to Tennessee. When he was stationed in Japan, Ray met musician Jeremy McComb when he was on a USO tour. The two stayed in touch, and McComb invited Ray to a game on a night he was performing on the Bridgestone Arena plaza. And Ray was hooked on hockey immediately.
Obtaining a service dog is not a quick or easy process, and unfortunately for Ray, it was a process he had to go through twice. Approximately a year and a half ago, an organization placed a dog with Ray, but the dog exhibited some concerning traits like not looking people in the eye. The dog’s trainer confirmed that the arrangement would not work and the dog was pulled.
Through his work with the Wounded Warrior Project, Ray ran into representatives from Retrieving Freedom Inc. at an event at Opryland. RFI is an organization that trains and places dogs with veterans, children with autism, and individuals living with diabetes. Ray went through the process of obtaining doctor statements and filling out the application paperwork to get a dog through RFI.
A couple of weeks ago, Ray received a text from Charles Dwyer, the co-founder and president of RFI. The text said that they had a dog for him, and invited Ray to Annie’s graduation. Ray spoke at the ceremony.
When they are working, service dogs wear an identifying vest. Their vests clearly indicate that they are working dogs and have “Do not pet,” displayed prominently on them. As clear as those instructions may be, service dog owners still have to remind others as such.
Following Friday night’s game, Predators game night staffer Ron Zolkower and his diabetic alert dog Duncan encountered an inebriated man outside the arena. The man threatened Zolkower with physical violence because Zolkower asked him not to pet Duncan.
As the owner of a service dog, Ray feels called to raise awareness for the dogs and those they serve. Part of his message to the crowd at Annie’s graduation was, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
In the short time Ray has had Annie, many people have inquired as to why he would need a service dog. Their curiosity is understood, but the questioning coming in an almost accusatory fashion is tough to endure.
“I guess I just wish their approach was better,” he said. “You’d never be able to tell looking at me that I’ve had my back surgically repaired to the point that with the numbness that I was feeling in my legs, they didn’t know if I’d be able to walk. I’ve had all these issues, there are scars that you can’t see. Just because you can’t see them, it doesn’t mean that they’re not there.”
Beyond the back and kidney surgeries that Ray has endured since being discharged, another major challenge he faces is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And this is where Annie comes into the picture. Annie is specially trained to recognize and mitigate situations related to Ray’s PTSD, even to the point where she will wake him up should he be experiencing nightmares or night terrors.
Ray has not had that experience since he has had Annie. Her calming presence may have a lot to do with that.
“She’s really great to have around,” he said. “I feel more comfortable to have her do all of that stuff with me. It’s kind of like having one of your best friends with you all the time.”
RFI is funded completely through donations, and at least one Predators fan has made a donation in Annie’s honor.
“RFI is so proud of Josh and Annie hitting their stride so recently after being paired,” Dwyer said. “We are so blessed to have been born in the United States and have men and women like Josh to stand up and protect our freedoms. Service dogs are highly trained specifically to help mitigate various visible and non-visible wounds. However just as important, they are a non-judgmental constant companion that can help our wounded veterans re-acclimate into the civilian world that they fought so dearly to protect. If a service dog can give these men and women the confidence to enjoy the freedoms that they fought to protect and live as close to a normal life as they did before being wounded, it’s a win for everyone.”
Dwyer trained Annie at RFI’s Senatobia, Mississippi location after she was fostered as a puppy by Pam Flotte in Louisiana.
An avid golfer, Ray will join the Veteran Golfers Association Tour next year. He is attempting to get funding for a new golf bag, a special one that will carry RFI’s logo with the goal of raising awareness for the organization and the work that they do for those that they help.
And while he is participating in those tour events, he will have Annie right there with him. She will be even more valuable than a good caddy.