Tails Wag as New Veterans Center Opens

FalcorMeet Falkor, the service dog of Saint Mary’s College. Falkor belongs to Stephen Eberly, 43, an Iraq war veteran and current SMC student. Although Falkor may appear cute and cuddly on the outside, he has a distinct purpose: to provide physical and emotional support to combat veterans. Eberly wants everyone to know the benefits of a service dog, how they support veterans, and Falkor’s impact on the newly opened Veterans’ Resource Center (VRC). 

As Vice President of the Veterans and Military Affiliated Gaels (VMAG), Eberly works to make sure that student veterans feel supported after they return to the rigors of school and civilian life. Their designated hang-out spot is the VRC in Filippi Academic Hall, which opened recently. 

“Veterans aren’t usually the type to advocate for themselves” Eberly admits. “But it’s good for them to be surrounded by other vets, who can relate a lot better to what they’re going through than the typical college student.” 

Veterans at SMC often face unique challenges that can’t always be answered by the school. “One of the guys who came in here, the admin told him he didn’t have to take another Jan Term course because he was in his fifth year, but the other vets were like ‘No, you have to take Jan Term to count as a full-time student and get your maximum benefits.' ” 

Eberly appreciates the school’s efforts to set up a space for veterans, but feels that the VRC is still in its infancy. “Eventually, I want the VRC to be like the next IC [Intercultural Center],” Eberly said. “You know, the IC started out as a club back in 2009. And eventually, more people got involved and it became what it is today. I’d like to see the same thing happen to the VRC.”

When Stephen Met Falkor

Falkor’s journey with Eberly began back in March 2019. They met through the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) for Vets in Walnut Creek. But being paired together didn’t mean that Eberly could take Falkor home right away. 

“The way it works is that they have to test the dog to see if he has the aptitude to get trained,” Eberly explained. “He has to go through tests to make sure that he’s able to perform the tasks that are asked of him. He has to go through a public access test, where we take him out in public to make sure that he’s well-behaved and doesn’t act the way other dogs would in public. The entire process takes about a year.” 

Once the arduous process has been completed, Falkor is left with a wide array of skills. Falkor’s main responsibilities are to identify, alert, and alleviate. Falkor helps to calm down Eberly when he’s agitated, and reminds him when it’s time to take his medications. 

“Falkor pays attention to what I’m doing,” Eberly says. “They key in on your pheromones and start to figure out what’s going on. Service dogs chemically know when you’re getting to the point that you need their help.” 

When Falkor performs a skill properly, Eberly rewards him so that he can know to repeat it. But Falkor’s closest activity has quite the calming effect on his owner. 

“This is a process known as deep pressure therapy, and basically, that’s where Falkor lies down on top of me, and the pressure is meant to alleviate stress,” Eberly said. “Where other dogs might run away, Falkor stays close by. Currently, I’m training him so that he can alert me when people are close by. But that one’s a work in progress.” 

But Falkor’s impact on Eberly far surpasses practical needs. Falkor’s biggest effect is emotional. 

“I like when you’re walking around campus with a dog, and it’s like he has a softening effect on you. Suddenly, you’re known as the guy with the dog,” Eberly mused. “And it’s a great sign for other veterans to see when they’re on campus. Falkor tells them they can hang out, that they’re welcome.” 

The New VRC 

Eberly’s main objective for now is to spread awareness of the VRC and to bring in other students to help set up events. 

“We’re welcome to anyone who is good at events or wants to help out, or spread the word to other students,” Eberly said. “I was talking to one of the younger vets who comes in, and he says that everyone’s on Instagram now. Maybe we could make Falkor the face of the VRC Instagram,” he added with a laugh. 

Learn more about the VRC on their Instagram here.

An earlier version of this story appeared in our student-run newspaper, The Collegian.