OGDEN (AP) — Retirement is proving to be a huge change filled with "firsts" for one Fruit Heights resident.
First snow. First tennis ball. First belly rub.
It's a stark contrast to the five years Mazzie, a floppy-eared German shepherd, spent as a narcotics detection dog in Kuwait.
The change is apparent to the dog's new owners, Jim and Linda Crismer. The first photo of Mazzie's return to the United States showed an underweight dog with clear signs of neglect.
"He was so scared," Linda recalled, "it just broke your heart."
Not much is known about Mazzie's handlers or what happened to him. He and several other working dogs were contracted out by an American company to Kuwait International Airport.
Mazzie and 12 other dogs arrived in January 2016 in Texas thanks to Mission K9 Rescue, a Texas nonprofit dedicated to working with the companies to retire, rehabilitate and rehome working dogs.
"The fact is these dogs have worked their entire lives, they've lived in a kennel their entire lives," Kristen Maurer, president of the Texas-based nonprofit, said. "They deserve a home."
Linda Crismer was in her last year of teaching fourth grade at Bountiful Elementary School when she learned about contract working dogs and Mission K9 Rescue through a Facebook post. Her own dogs often visit her classroom. When she shared the post with her students, they encouraged her to send in an application.
"They kept saying 'you're retiring, you aren't going to have anything to do,'" Linda laughed.
At the Mission K9 Rescue kennel, Mazzie wouldn't eat. He eventually gained some weight back after he was taken in by a foster home. Everything was new — where to go to the bathroom, how to live in a home.
When Jim and Linda Crismer finally met Mazzie outside a hotel in Amarillo, Texas, almost two months later, Mazzie was house-broken but still scared. He preferred to stay in his crate.
Jim and Linda slowly introduced Mazzie to the rest of their four-legged family — another dog named Ruger and two cats — luckily with no problems. The plush dog bed his foster mom bought him went unused for months in his new home. Mazzie preferred the hard floor.
"It's like he had to learn how to be a dog again," Linda said
A friend recommended they take Mazzie to Jeremy Varela, a former Davis County Sheriff's deputy and owner of Right Hand K9 in Ogden. With 15 years of experience training working dogs, Varela remembered when the Crismer's first brought Mazzie in to be evaluated. His first thought: this dog is petrified of everything. Definitely neglect. Potential physical abuse.
"At some point it really doesn't matter what happened, we just need to give the dog a better life," Varela said. "Mazzie going to Jim and Linda, it was the perfect fit."
The plan became enforcing constant positive experiences and keeping him by their side everywhere they went, going out of their way to ask permission to have him walk through stores and other public places to introduce him to civilian life. Varela coached the Crismers over the next few months, too.
Mazzie's usual attire while in public is a vest with desert digital camouflage and patches in bold black lettering "MAZZIE, C.W.D N.D.D, RETIRED WAR DOG." His vest strikes a chord with certain people.
Linda recalled a trip into an area Cabelas sporting goods store on a day that Mazzie was near panicking. She struggled to keep the big dog from running out the door. The couple tried to reassure him with calming voices and petting.
A man walking by glanced at Mazzie. A few steps later he suddenly stopped and came back for a second look at the dog and his owners. Linda said he was wearing a hat identifying him as a Vietnam veteran. Jim and Linda shook his hand, thanking for his service and they told him a little about their retired war dog.
What happened next brought the couple to tears.
Easing to a knee in front of their dog, the veteran held Mazzie's face with one hand and started rubbing the spot between his ears.
"Then he said 'I know what it's like to be in a foreign land and to be treated really bad'" Linda said.
As Mazzie has continued to explore his new life, he found a connection with more and more veterans. The Utah chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America made Mazzie an honorary member a few months ago, adding a patch to his vest. The war dog and his owners even joined the group in several events and parades.
For Vietnam vets like Dennis Howland, who is the Utah chair for the Vietnam Veterans of America, dogs like Mazzie hold a special place. There were thousands of military working dogs used during the conflict, but the ones who survived never got an invitation home.
"They're a veteran, they just happen to walk on four legs instead of two," Howland said. "Biggest thing we can do is love them and care for them and bring them home."4 comments on this story
Mazzie's new home includes a backyard with grass, his buddy, Ruger, the golden retreiver to play with and lots of peanut butter. He's taken to trotting back and forth with "Baby," a flat, fuzzy plush toy filled with squeakers. His anxiety or the side-effects of it aren't vanquished but he's no longer ruled by the impulse to run away. Mazzie now looks to Jim and Linda when he's fearful — someone to trust, at last.
Linda and Jim Crismer have taken Mazzie to area schools to share his story and raise awareness about contract working dogs and Mission K9 Rescue. The couple hopes to adopt another war dog in the future.
"I think Mazzie needs another brother," Linda said.