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Veterinarian helps vets with PTSD get service dogs, urges the use of shelter animals

Dr. Bob Zepecki sits with his service dog "Jack".  The dog helps the Hot Springs Village veterinarian cope with PTSD. (KATV photo)
Dr. Bob Zepecki sits with his service dog "Jack". The dog helps the Hot Springs Village veterinarian cope with PTSD. (KATV photo)
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What started as a chance encounter between dog and veterinarian has developed into a close-knit relationship and mission to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to get unconditional love from a service animal.

Dr. Bob Zepecki, a veteran and veterinarian that lives in Hot Springs Village, remembers the day in 2008 that he met "Lucky Jack". Jack came into Zepecki's clinic with severe wounds; the result of teenagers shooting at the dog with a crossbow.

Zepecki replaced several teeth in Jack's mouth and sewed up the wound in the dog's muzzle, but Jack would require surgery from special surgeons at LSU to remove the arrowhead lodged in Jack's head.

"They opened it up like this and they took out the arrowhead and then they closed it up," said Zepecki, while pointing to Jack's snout and a scar resulting from the surgery.

Zepecki cared for Jack throughout his recovery and eventually ended up adopting the medium-sized dog, after being diagnosed with PTSD from his time serving in the Air Force.

"I didn't know for thirty years I had it," said Zepecki, commenting that PTSD hadn't been as commonly diagnosed while he was in the service.

But Zepecki said he also didn't realize the emotional support he had been receiving for his PTSD all along - being a veterinarian for decades, constantly being surrounded by dogs.

"I didn't know they were helping me," said Zepecki. "I just had them all the time."

Jack the dog has his own PTSD from his abuse before being connected with Zepecki. He was fairly skiddish around people following his incident with a crossbow, especially people that looked like the teenagers that shot him.

"He wouldn't let anybody touch him," said Zepecki.

But within two years, most of Jack's fear of people had been shed. Zepecki claims Jack's need for emotional support created a "magical" bond between the two.

"We help each other out," said Zepecki. "He comes over to me when I'm having a moment; I go to him when he's having a moment."

Although both still have their "moments," Zepecki says both have made each other's lives much better. Since they united, Zepecki made it his goal to help other vets with PTSD gain access to a service dog of their own.

Zepecki founded "Pets for Vets" - helping arrange and train service dogs to help pick up on PTSD symptoms to help veterans struggling through rough patches when it comes to their post-traumatic stress.

The Hot Springs Village veterinarian said he's disappointed in some of the "money-making schemes" that some service dog trainers use, and claims that dogs specifically bred to be service dogs are wasteful. Zepecki suggests people adopt their future service dog, adding that many rescue dogs develop special bonds with PTSD veterans - often times due to the connection a veteran can have with a dog that has issues of its own.

Zepecki started meeting with area veterans about seven years ago, not long after developing his special connection to his service dog. He takes Jack to meet with area veterans who are interested in getting a service dog - many seeing the similarities between the rescued dog and themselves.

"When they saw what Jack had gone through and that he'd recovered, it kind of resonated with them," said Zepecki. "They think, 'well what I'm going through - maybe I can recover.'"

Pets for Vets has helped close to a hundred veterans find service dogs, urging those he helps to seek out shelter dogs, in a way helping to pay it forward.

"That saves two lives," said Zepecki. "The shelter dog and the human."

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Although Zepecki said not every dog is fit to be a service animal, he claims those who need a little extra attention are a helpful distraction to those with PTSD.

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