May 15, 2021
Reading time: 3 minutes, 18 seconds
Justine Furr and Misti

Veterans are used to someone having their backs.

In Justine Furr’s case, this someone just happens to have four paws and a tail.

And this morning, Misti, an Australian shepherd, was right by Furr’s side at the University of West Georgia’s stadium when Furr received her Bachelor of Science in Anthropology.

“She’s my partner-in-crime,” said Furr, who served in the U.S. Air Force. “I knew graduation would be overwhelming for me because there was a lot going on with a lot of people, so she helped me stay focused on the day and getting my degree.”

Already a lover of Aussies, Furr met Misti at their breeder’s house where the pup immediately took a protective perspective toward her. At the same time, Furr just happened to have been discussing ways to help her mental health with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“I have had certain experiences that cause anxiety,” she shared. “I can get extremely overwhelmed and anxious anywhere I am.”  

The VA estimates 20-30 percent of veterans live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent study conducted by the administration showed that service dogs trained to support veterans with PTSD can decrease the severity of symptoms in the owners.

Furr – a student assistant with UWG’s Center for Adult Learners and Veterans (CALV) at the time – heard about Healing4Heroes from a CALV staff member. Founded by a disabled veteran, the nonprofit group matches and trains Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant dogs for service members.

“Usually, Healing4Heroes works with Coco’s Cupboard, a rescue group, then trains the dogs and matches them to a veteran,” Furr explained. “They allowed me to bring Misti because she was older, was already spayed, and she was used to me. After training, she officially became my service animal.”

She said Aussies make ideal service dogs because of their intelligence and loyalty. 

“I feel what made her ideal was that instant connection,” Furr recalled. “Just the fact that she immediately took to me and didn’t want to be separated. Even at home, if I seem to be overcome by the other dogs, she will get under them and buck them off of me essentially and make sure I am okay.”

Furr described ways Misti helps her navigate through civilian life.

“When I get overwhelmed, Misti applies pressure to focus my attention on her and off the stress and anxiety,” she explained. “If people come up from behind me or too fast I get very defensive. So when we’re out, she blocks other people from coming up to me. And if we’re just standing there, she sits beside me and leans into me while she is watching whoever or whatever is coming to me.”

Misti, an Australian shepherd

Not much is different in the classroom. Since anthropology field classes – like the pig dig – are smaller, Misti usually takes time off.

“With those few students, I didn’t really need her all the time,” Furr said. “If I have a class that is larger or more stressful, she is with me every day to make sure I’m OK. She always has her body on my feet or against my leg.”

From faculty members to CALV and Counseling Center staff (Misti even received her own UWG student ID), Furr expressed the most impactful part of her UWG experience has been the overall support she has received.

“Everyone comes together to do what’s best for the students at UWG,” she said. “I never had a truly bad experience. That’s hard to find in higher education in general, and it’s just been wonderful to have all these connections and supportive people.”

That message of support is one she hoped to convey as she and Misti walked across the stage at Commencement.

“As a mom, this allowed me to show my daughter that if she needs support in the future, it’s OK – don’t let fear knock you down,” she concluded. “And having my best friend there with me at graduation showed people that West Georgia will accommodate most anything you need to help you – including service animals.”