Iraq war vet earns Canine Angels Service Dog certification

A former Marine and Grand Strand resident who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder passed a crucial test Wednesday.

Donnell Nelson needs a service dog to help him cope with civilian life, but the man who helped him acquire the dog wanted to make sure dog and owner were fully prepared to be a team.

Nelson served three tours of duty in Iraq. He says Maximus, his pit bull terrier, helps him deal with day-to-day pressures, after the war.

“I have anxiety around in crowds, pretty much public places, loud noises, those small things. The dog is there to give me that comfort.”

Pit bulls tend to be stereotyped. Nelson says the dogs sometimes get a bad rap. But in a way, that’s exactly why he wanted a dog like Maximus.

“So I chose the pit bull because he represents me as who he is, and I represent him as who I am,” Nelson explained.

Under the direction of Rick Kaplan, founder of Canine Angels Service Dogs, Nelson and Maximus went through months of intense training together.

The North Myrtle Beach Walmart was the scene for their final exam, which began in the store’s parking lot with the simple task of controlled unloading from the car.

“So the dog is clearly waiting for a command, the door is open, but he’s not jumping out,” said Kaplan, as he watched Maximus sit patiently in the back of Nelson’s car.

From there, the testing process took them into the store, where dog and owner were put through the paces.

Through multiple smells, food, distractions and temptations, Maximus remained in control.

He was given a sudden noise distraction – Kaplan loudly rattling a shopping cart behind him – and Maximus didn’t flinch.

Cookie treats were placed under his nose and Maximus ignored them until he was told he could have one.

In all, Kaplan had 20 tasks for Nelson and Maximus to perform successfully.

Kaplan worries about unqualified pets masquerading as service dogs, which he says only hurts the legitimate teams. That’s why he developed his own testing program for his service teams.  

Proving themselves legitimate was clearly no problem for Nelson and Maximus.

 “You are officially now a service dog team,” Kaplan told Nelson following the exam.

Most amazing of all: Maximus is just one year old. He’s been preparing for Wednesday’s test for about three months.

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