“From Service Dog to Life-Changer: How a Canine Companion Transformed a Veteran’s Life in Just 8 Weeks”

Kirby, the exceptional Labrador retriever, is making a positive impact on the lives of everyone he meets. He began his journey as a beloved mascot and a “puppy with a purpose” for the Houston Texans before being trained by America’s VetDogs to become a service dog. The Texans became the first NFL team to partner with America’s VetDogs to raise a puppy who would later serve as a service dog.
Kirby has earned numerous accolades, such as winning the coveted Most Valuable Puppy award at the 2022 Puppy Bowl. However, his most meaningful accomplishment occurred when he became the official service dog of retired Sergeant Major Kevin Bittenbender two months ago.

SGM Bittenbender dedicated 34 years of his life serving in the United States Army and retired in the year 2018. Throughout his service, he encountered various challenges. One of which is the amputation of his left leg, which was caused by burn pit exposure during his deployment in Afghanistan. He also suffered from PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and peripheral neuropathy in his legs and hands. These conditions were partly due to his exposure to burn pits.

During his rehabilitation at Walter Reed Medical Center, America’s VetDogs came into his life and gave him much-needed support. SGM Bittenbender shared with PEOPLE that America’s VetDogs came at a time when he could greatly benefit from their help. He was paired with Kirby, and together they underwent training at America’s VetDogs to prepare for their life as a team.

Kirby is a highly skilled service dog that has been trained to provide assistance to individuals with PTSD and mobility issues. He is a loyal companion to SGM Bittenbender, helping him with tasks such as navigating stairs and retrieving items while in his wheelchair. Kirby is also able to sense when his owner is experiencing nightmares and intervenes to promote restful sleep. SGM Bittenbender speaks highly of Kirby, referring to him as an “amazing” battle buddy, much like the ones he had during his time in the military.

Kirby’s heroic lineage is notable, as he is related to Sully, the service dog of the late George H.W. Bush. Sully currently serves as a facility dog at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. SGM Bittenbender is amazed at the striking resemblance between Kirby and Sully, often referring to Kirby as a younger version of the famous service dog.

Kirby has made a significant impact on SGM Bittenbender’s life beyond the physical help he provides. In just eight weeks, Kirby has helped the veteran feel more socially engaged and comfortable in crowded environments. Kirby’s companionship has been so beneficial that he even joined SGM Bittenbender during the last mile of the Pittsburgh Marathon, where he supported his owner and helped him finish the race. This event marked the beginning of SGM Bittenbender’s plan to run five races this year in honor of four fallen servicemembers. Kirby’s support and friendship have been fundamental in helping SGM Bittenbender achieve his goals.

Kirby has brought new life into SGM Bittenbender’s life. As a service dog, Kirby represents the three fundamental values that he holds dear: purpose, passion, and contributing to something greater than oneself. SGM Bittenbender hopes that his experience with Kirby will encourage other veterans to consider a service dog as a valuable addition to their lives. He emphasizes that the wait time for matching with a canine through America’s VetDogs has greatly reduced from a four-year span to just 12 months or less.

SGM Bittenbender shares that having his service dog Kirby by his side brings him a sense of peace that he hasn’t felt in over a decade. He truly treasures their time together and feels fortunate to have such a loyal companion. SGM Bittenbender encourages others who may be hesitant to consider getting a service dog to give it a chance. He speaks to the transformative power that these animals can have and how they can bring joy and comfort even on the toughest days. For SGM Bittenbender, Kirby’s unwavering companionship is a constant source of happiness and support.

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