Special to the Village News
"Dogs can do more than just be man's best friend," believes Marine veteran Asia Duhamel. "Lotus saved my life."
This isn't a story of a dog rescuing someone from something like drowning, but Duhamel shared that she was in "a dark place" with PTSD, anxiety, panic and suicidal thoughts in the months prior to her discharge from the Marines in 2017.
That's when she was introduced to Lotus, a German Shepherd that was recognized in December as the outstanding service dog in the 2022 AKC Awards for Canine Excellence. Awards were presented in five categories and the winners were presented in a documentary shown on ESPN and ABC.
"The idea behind the award is that Lotus did her job – keeping me alive – in order to get me through the mess. Now, because of her, I'm able to train dogs and help other people with their dogs. Basically, like it's her legacy."
Lotus has the ability to "read" Duhamel's emotions and nudge her to stop harmful habits.
"I was afraid of doing things by myself, even ordering food at a restaurant," she said. "Having Lotus gives me security."
The Fallbrook resident works as the lead trainer at a nonprofit organization called Canine Support Teams in Murrieta, training service dogs.
Duhamel grew up in a small town in Georgia. "I went through ROTC in high school and joined the Marine Corps because it was the hardest branch, and they have the best uniforms. I wanted to do law enforcement after I got out of the military, using the GI bill for college, but didn't think a police force would take me seriously because I'm 105 pounds and small."
"I worked hard in the Marines and earned a black belt in Tae Kwan Do and worked out like six days a week. I was and still am pretty fit – but I was really fit back then – and I got myself prepared for boot camp. It was super easy physically for me and so that's why I decided to join the military.
"I ended up being sent here to Camp Pendleton, which is where some of the bad things happened in my life."
She explained that it's difficult for female Marines. She had become a sergeant in her four-years of service, but the final year included help in the form of medications and counseling.
"The medications that the military and the VA will give you are horrible for you. I figured out something that works and now it's just living day by day. I still go to therapy, but not intensive therapy like I used to, where it was like four days a week, eight hours each of those days for two months straight.
"I wanted to have a dog and I wanted her to have her fully trained by the time I got out. I went to a program and got Lotus – and actually I met my husband Jules there. It was nice because he had his service dog – a boxer named Moses. It was nice having someone who you know could relate to and understand where I was coming from."
Duhamel wasn't satisfied with the training methods of the initial program and was able to adopt Lotus out of it and decided to train the dog on her own.
"I finished her training then I went through Next Step Service Dogs, which is an incredible accredited program. She and I graduated through them and then we volunteered there. Then with COVID, I stopped."
She applied and was accepted at a couple colleges before getting the job with Canine Support Teams as lead trainer for service dogs.
"It's very demanding and part of it is going into prison teaching the inmates," Duhamel said. "I teach the puppy raisers and teach the clients when I get the dogs to place with them – so I'm there every step of the way. I use Lotus as a demo dog because sometimes when the clients are getting their dog, they don't really know what the dogs are capable of doing."
She said team training is two weeks with a lot of stress for people working with veterans, which is 80% of their work.
"I can see myself in many of them, where they get frustrated or emotional. I could see their anxiety when we go out to the mall to practice with the dogs in public. It's something that you have to be sensitive about."
"My whole life is now dogs. She was my first dog – so that's cool – and to be selected was based mostly on our story."
Duhamel self-nominated her dog, sending the AKC a photo of her dog and explaining why she should be considered.
"It was pretty neat to watch myself on TV," she admitted. "It was kind of surreal. I was happy with what they did. They interviewed my husband as well and the training coordinator who works here. They also showed Lotus doing some task work and some of her retrieval commands, and doing her alerts where she puts her chin on my lap and she pawed me whenever I do some anxious behaviors that she's queued onto."
"There's no such thing as a complete cure for the trauma, but I've learned to manage it way better than I used to. I still go to therapy, but I feel almost normal.
I'm not as worried about panicking in public, so it's it helped me start to go into public more often because I can trust bad things wouldn't happen – because I'd recognize when I need to leave because Lotus responds so well to an anxiety attack or panic attack.
Duhamel has a 100% disability from the military. She likes Fallbrook because it's close to the base, is quiet, and she can afford a house with a backyard.
She feels she is finally in a good place emotionally, thanks to Lotus.