Dan Sauer doesn't want or need your sympathy.
The 42-year-old Hampshire resident and former Marine sergeant is only discussing his service dog, Chloe, to educate the public and to raise awareness for soldiers coming up behind him who could benefit from having such an animal.
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Sauer, a disabled veteran who was in the service for eight years, spent nearly 10 months in Kuwait during Desert Storm and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder 13 years ago.
During the war, Sauer suffered a traumatic brain injury from a mortar round that also tore the retina in his left eye, damaged a fingernail on his left hand and affected his memory. Sauer's experience overseas and PTSD made him bunker down at home and avoid people. For years, he didn't seek treatment for PTSD.
"I'm a Marine," Sauer said, describing his mentality before he finally got help. "Just deal with it; that's all."
'Can go anywhere'
Chloe, 3, isn't your typical service dog.
Many people, used to seeing bigger dogs doing the job, mistake the 17-pound, black-and-white Bichon-poodle-shih tzu mix for a pet -- even with her red service dog vest.
And she doesn't always enjoy the same level of acceptance as a German shepherd or a golden retriever -- pooches people generally associate with service work.
When they're out and about, Sauer and Chloe get curious glances, questions and the occasional rude comment from the public.
For example, as soon as Sauer entered a store in Belvidere with Chloe, the manager came over and said, "Oh, no," to Sauer and pointed to the exit door.
"I said, 'Oh yeah, oh yeah!' Sauer said. "'This dog can go anywhere. It's a service dog.'"
What many people don't know is that federal law allows Sauer to bring Chloe with him most places. The only exceptions are certain parts of hospitals and in churches where pastors can forbid them.
"There's so much ignorance; it's almost like the people don't care to know," Sauer said.
Because Sauer and his fiancee, Janet Bachta-Adams, are constantly bombarded with inquiries about Chloe, they have made it their business to educate the public and store employees about service dogs -- on the spot.
"We always say, 'Do you have any questions?'" Bachta-Adams said. "Wherever we go, whether it's school … no matter where it is, if we have the time to stop and answer people's questions, we will."
How Chloe helps
Sauer learned about the power of service dogs after Veronica Bachta, 13, his future stepdaughter, did a report last spring that focused on how they help veterans with PTSD. Sauer also knew a veteran who used a French bulldog as a service dog and saw how much it helped him.
Chloe's job is to sense when Sauer is aggravated, angry and stressed then to distract him from those feelings and keep him in check by forcing him to pay attention to her.
For example, Sauer has nightmares every night about combat.
When he's having a nightmare, Chloe, who usually sleeps with him, will feel his legs twitching and nudge and cuddle with him to wake him up. He'll pet her, and that will take his mind off the nightmare and help him get back to sleep.
If Sauer feels irritated at any point during the day, all he has to do is order Chloe to "lay," and she'll jump up on him and press her body into his while he strokes her, putting him in his happy place. She also protects Sauer's personal space by standing between him and other people.
"She doesn't care about the other person," Sauer said. "She cares about me and what I do."
Taking care of Chloe brought a sense of structure back into Sauer's life that was missing after he'd left the military.
He is the only one who feeds, walks and touches her -- nobody else is allowed to tend to Chloe because it will distract her from what she's trying to do for Sauer.
When Sauer stops, she stops. When he sits, Chloe sits. Her life is all about serving him.
"I had kids I was in charge of (during the war)," Sauer said. "She's a troop with me, but she's also like my third arm. She's an appendage."
Chloe is a survivor, too.
She was living 400 miles away in a shelter near Joplin, Mo., just before the tornadoes struck, said Elana Morgan, the Chicago-based dog trainer and boarder who rescued Chloe.
After the storm, the shelter that housed Chloe got filled up with displaced animals and there was no room for Chloe, which meant she was headed for death row.
"I got an urgent email from a (pet) rescue close by, seeing if I could pull a few (dogs)," Morgan said.
Morgan selected eight dogs, including Chloe, and a volunteer drove the animals to her in Chicago.
"Chloe was just nice and calm," Morgan said, adding that a dog's breed has nothing to do with its suitability for service. "We began to work with her. These dogs don't have a lot of love, so when they get it, they're the ones that gravitate to be a service dog."
Because of the red tape and lengthy waiting list to obtain a service dog through the Veterans Affairs department, Sauer secured Chloe through Morgan, gratis.
Chloe has been in Sauer's life for nearly three months and is helping to fully integrate him back into society. He and Chloe still go twice a week for training.
In the time since he's had Chloe, Sauer is getting out a lot more and now leaves the house six days a week. He'll run errands, go for walks and participate in and attend school functions, all with the dog in tow. He's also a lot more social and cracking more jokes.
But Sauer's relationship with Chloe isn't a one-way street. Whenever she looks up into his eyes, Chloe constantly reminds Sauer that he's her caretaker and the reason she's alive.
"I can't let anything happen to her, so I'm responsible for her," Sauer said. "She's my conscience. She reminds me of stuff that's probably not a good thing to do."