By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle
MUSKEGON, MI – Nothing was the same for Greg Heberling after he returned home from Iraq.
After 22 years in the Navy, Heberling was medically discharged and discovered he had hypervigilance – a form of PTSD that causes individuals to maintain an increased awareness of their surroundings.
“I have a hard time with public places,” Heberling said, “even if it’s as simple as shopping at Wal-Mart.”
The 44-year-old Reed City resident was constantly on guard, but eventually found solace in a 3-year-old pit bull named Cuddles.
She was the fourth dog – as well as the first pit bull – to be adopted out of Pound Buddies in Muskegon through the organization known as Pets for Vets.
Pets for Vets, which was founded in California by Clarissa Black in 2009, has been active in Michigan since 2011. The organization reaches out for animals across West Michigan to find a match for veterans who are in search of a companion.
Greg Heberling poses with his new companion, Cuddles. (Photo by Pets for Vets)
Like Heberling, Cuddles was in trouble. Having been in the pound for three months without any interest for adoption, the staff was afraid Cuddles would be put on the death row watch.
Luckily, Linda Lummen, a volunteer at Pound Buddies, was told of Cuddles’ situation and took her in as a foster dog. Cuddles stayed with Lummen for a month.
“No one had seen the beauty in her. She wasn’t a dog that would bark,” Lummen said. “Some dogs will bark and try to get your attention when you go past. Cuddles was a very meek, mild dog.”
During her stay with Lummen, Cuddles became accustomed to the walks with Lummen’s two other dogs and learned how to be part of a family.
“Even though I only had her for a month, I loved her,” Lummen said. “All she wanted to do was make people happy.”
Meanwhile, Madeline Barkalow scoured the state in search of a dog that would complement Heberling’s needs.
Barkalow, who is the assistant director for the West Michigan Chapter of Pets for Vets, called Pound Buddies to ask about a couple of dogs and their well-being. In this case, the receptionist Barkalow was on the phone with happened to be Lummen, who spoke at length of one dog in particular.
Lummen brought Cuddles to the shelter and Barkalow arranged a meeting with Heberling, his family and their two basset hounds.
“There was an immediate connection for the dog. Cuddles was the perfect lady,” Barkalow said. “We felt it was a successful match and I was able to get Cuddles to Greg within a couple of days because she had already been spade and neutered.”
The way a veteran is matched with his or her pet depends on what the veteran’s living atmosphere is like and what the veteran’s needs are.
When Heberling applied to the national website, he was contacted within a week by another veteran who talked with him at length, getting to know him and his story.
Based on that conversation and an in-person interview, Barkalow was able to find Heberling the perfect dog. And it showed in their first meeting.
“First thing I noticed was that Cuddles was wide open to meeting everybody. She wasn’t shy, she was polite,” Barkalow said. “It didn’t take more than a minute before he was hugging her. There was an immediate connection. When I handed over the leash to him, she walked along with him without any restraint.”
She called them a couple of days later and discovered that Cuddles had moved into the house as if she had lived there her entire life.
Now Heberling is going to obedience classes for one hour every week with his new friend. Cuddles will be able to finish her canine good citizenship testing, getting her one step closer to becoming a service dog.
After moving from residence to residence, Cuddles has found a permanent and nurturing home, while Heberling has started to work his way back to enjoying the outside world.
“I get out a lot more now. Before her I spent a lot of days in my bedroom, and that’s all I’d do,” Heberling said. “I walk her every day, morning and night. She gave me something to think about other than myself. I’m thankful that I got her.”
Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 26, 2014)