Former Marine Tony Austin transformed his dog Hadji from house pet to his therapy dog savior

By Ale Russian
June 16, 2016 09:03 PM
Ackerman + Gruber

Former Marine Tony Austin uses one word to describe what life was like coming back from service in 2010: “Horrible.”

For two years, he struggled with adapting back to civilian life while dealing with post traumatic stress disorder. That all changed when he rescued Hadji, the dog of his dreams.

“I’ve wanted a mastiff for as long as I can remember,” says Austin of the dog he and his wife rescued on Valentine’s Day 2013.

Although Hadji was just a regular house pet for the first few months, he soon earned a new, important role.

“I learned about PTSD service dogs, what they can do, and I learned about what they can cost and how long it can take to get one,” Austin says of the process.

Along with the unappealing cost, Austin was also having trouble going through the demanding application process that can be difficult for PTSD sufferers. Since people with PTSD don’t just have one symptom that manifests regularly, but a series of unpredictable symptoms, it was hard to outline in the application exactly what he wanted in a service dog.

Even worse, some applications asked that no other pets were in the house. That meant Austin would be forced to decide whether he wanted a service dog or Hadji. Luckily for him, Hadji made the decision for him.

“We were having the conversation about getting rid of him or not, and he was lying on the couch between my wife and I,” Austin says. “I think the next night, or two nights later, was the first night he woke me up from a nightmare.” 

For Austin, that was the “Hey, what if he’s my service dog?” moment. 

Since Hadji wasn’t trained as a therapy dog when he was a puppy, he didn’t fully understand his role at first. He responded to the stimulations like any dog just wanting a treat or a belly rub. But, after establishing a connection with Austin, Hadji became more than just a house pet looking for affection.

“Early on, he was all about making me happy and getting treats, whereas he’s gotten to the point he knows I don’t have treats,” Austin explains of the early days. “Now he is 100% emotionally vested into my care. He doesn’t do it for the treats. He does it because I believe he cares that much.”

Now, Hadji springs into action whenever Austin needs help – especially when his owner becomes agitated.

“His whole point is disruption, to break my train of yelling,” Austin explains about Hadji’s methods. “He disrupts me, breaks my focus and my train of thought and my sense of structure in my head on what I am gonna say. That disruption is not a reset switch because you can’t forget what was said or how it was said, but it’s that opportunity to recalibrate and add some stuff with a new approach,” Austin explained.

Through this, Hadji has helped Austin resume his daily life and enjoy his time with his wife, Jessica, and their two daughters. For the former Marine, man’s best friend also became his savior.

“Hadji is definitely my four-legged soulmate,” Austin says.

Austin is so inspired and moved by the positive effects Hadji has had on his life, that he and his wife have started Dog Tags and Capes. This non-profit allows the couple to raise money to pay for service dogs for other veterans in need, so more people can experience what Hadji has given to Austin.

— Reporting by Antoinette Coulton