TADSAW program pairs vets with service pets

Graham Dudley
Stormy McNatt accepts a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center, which donated Lexy to the TADSAW program free of charge. From left: Ashton Polley, Aaron Polley, McNatt, Darwin Odom and Debbie Odom.

It’s Friday afternoon, and Aaron Polley is going shopping.   

He wanders through the aisles at Brownwood’s Tractor Supply Co., scanning the shelves with his good friend Lexy. It’s an unremarkable scene, one that most of us take entirely for granted. But ever since his tour in Iraq, public places — and many other everyday tasks — have become fraught with anxiety for Polley.   

That’s where Lexy comes in. Polley and Lexy met just three weeks ago at the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center, where Polley adopted the friendly Lacy Dog for a very specific purpose. Lexy is going to become Polley’s service animal, helping him with his post-traumatic stress disorder and his mobility problems. On Friday, Tractor Supply is their training ground. And veteran Darwin Odom is there to help prepare Lexy for her mission.   

Odom, a former Green Beret and longtime law enforcement officer, is now a volunteer for the Train a Dog Save a Warrior, or TADSAW, program. He is Brown County’s first TADSAW trainer, and he aims to help veterans like Polley complete a 15-plus week course, in just one hour per week, that will prepare both dog and owner to face the world together.   

Unlike many service dog nonprofits, TADSAW trains the dog with its owner instead of giving veterans a pre-trained dog. According to program literature, TADSAW “wants to assure that the human-canine bond will build and strengthen over the training period” and “continue after the last lesson.”   

Based in San Antonio, TADSAW was founded by Bart Sherwood in 2010 and has now trained almost 750 service dog teams. Polley’s wife Ashton said TADSAW’s family emphasis was a big reason the family chose it. “When you deal with a veteran, you deal with his whole family,” Ashton Polley said. “When you have a veteran struggling with PTSD, the wife is right there with him. You kind of fight blindly, and you have to know what you’re fighting.   

“We really love TADSAW because they are so family-oriented,” she said. Veterans’ spouses and children commonly attend TADSAW trainings along with them.   

On Friday, Polley and Lexy worked on things like basic obedience skills, exiting and re-entering vehicles, overcoming distractions, staying on command and “clearing the aisle,” where Lexy checks the end of an aisle for oncoming foot traffic. “So the veteran’s not surprised,” Odom explained.   

Odom said he conducts trainings in busy places like Tractor Supply so the dog will learn to deal with distractions and the veteran can lower his or her anxiety. Large stores with aisles can be especially tense for veterans — sight lines are extremely limited, and the veteran may feel exposed.   

“Walmart is the worst,” Odom said. “We’re working up to that.”   

Odom said Lexy is coming along extremely well after just two lessons. Odom’s wife Debbie, who assists with trainings, said Polley and Lexy already share an obvious bond. “Lexy is now their third child,” she said.    

The Polleys have two young daughters at home, and they said Lexy is already helping Polley be a more patient father and man. “He’s a lot calmer,” Ashton Polley said. “We get to go and do things that we couldn’t before, like Walmart.”   

“There’s stuff that I never thought stressed me out or got me flustered, but [Lexy] knows even before I do,” Aaron Polley said.   

Polley served in the Air Force for five years, but spent a tour on the ground with the Army driving trucks from Kuwait into Iraq. It’s been nearly four years since Polley left the service, but Lexy is finally bringing him hope for a calmer, fuller life. He’s hoping TADSAW can do the same for other local veterans with PTSD. “Seek the help,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”   

After the Tractor Supply training, the Polleys and Odoms met at the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center and presented it with a certificate of appreciation. The shelter was able to provide Lexy to the Polleys free of charge.   

More information about TADSAW is available at www.tadsaw.org, and Odom can be reached at oldcop736@yahoo.com.