YORK, Pa. (AP) — York College senior Blair Hagelgans was bullied on an anonymous social media app her freshman year. The reason? She has a service dog to help with illnesses you can’t see. Maddie Crocenzi
Budhi Blair had a client – he’s a dog trainer – who had a black Labrador-Brittany mix that was more than a handful.
The dog, Ryder, had a lot of energy. He was 2 years old, but still very much like a puppy, all unbridled energy. He just wouldn’t sit still. He was making his family’s life miserable. His owners called upon Budhi to fix him. After a few sessions, he threw his hands up. That dog couldn’t be helped. He needed a change of scenery; he needed some direction, something to do. It happens. Sometimes it’s not the right dog for a person.
The dog’s owner was ready to give up on Ryder and said she was going to take him to the pound. Budhi said, “I can’t let you do that.”
So he took Ryder in.
He had to save the dog.
“I was a mess there for a while,” Budhi said. “A dog saved me.”
It was the least he could do.
Budhi grew up in the Gap area in eastern Lancaster County. His mother was a drug addict and had traded him to a dealer to settle a debt. His father was in prison, according to family lore, for stealing a car. His grandfather was able to track Budhi down and placed him with an aunt and uncle.
When he was 5, his father got out of prison and took him back, violently. He beat Budhi’s grandmother and snatched him, throwing him in his car and driving off. He tried to convince Budhi that his aunt and uncle were a figment of his imagination.
He and his father had a rocky, violent relationship. His father was abusive and eventually, Budhi fought back. They couldn’t be in the same room without getting into a fistfight. When his father would beat him, he’d huddle with the dog. That infuriated his father, who beat the dog to death.
Budhi wound up in foster care and was eventually, after his grandfather intervened, returned to his aunt and uncle. He had a hard time adjusting. He left home when he was 16, and a year later he joined the Navy, where he was assigned to a search-and-rescue unit. He lost a good friend in the Navy. The sailor had taken one of his watch shifts, and while on his post, another sailor took the top of his head off with a sledgehammer. Budhi was called to the scene to help clean up. He didn’t recognize his friend. He could identify him only by his watch.
He served his enlistment and then went to Penn State, graduating from the university’s school of information services and technology. He couldn’t serve his reserve duty while at Penn State, so the Navy put his service into abeyance.
He got a job as an executive with an IT company, the job he held when the Navy came calling and reminded him that he owed them some time in the reserve. He had a choice – he could serve three more years in the reserve, and be called up for active duty, or he could serve an additional year in active duty. He chose the latter and served a year overseas in the Middle East, part of a combat search-and-rescue unit.
He returned home and went back to work. But all was not well. He was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and treated it with alcohol. He would be fine at work, but every night he would drink himself into unconsciousness. “During the day, I was fine,” he said. “At night, I was just a mess. I couldn’t feel anything. It was like going through life with mittens on. I could feel, but I couldn’t feel – if that makes any sense.”
With the drinking came rage, erupting from deep within, a combination of his youthful abuse and his PTSD, fueled by the drink. His family – a wife and daughter – took the brunt of it.
In August 2006, he was at a wedding when he had a confrontation with another man. Angry, he left the wedding, and on the way home he stopped by the liquor store and picked up a bottle of Jim Beam, which he proceeded to polish off. He blacked out, waking up later with police officers pointing guns at him. While he was blacked out, he had savagely beaten his wife. (Now ex-wife.)
He was charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder and sentenced to eight to 20 years in state prison.
While in prison, he worked on himself. He took Spanish classes and learned to play the guitar. He taught GED classes and computer drafting and art.
He struggled to, in his words, “live with the guilt of being everything I hated.” He contemplated suicide, once going as far as having a sheet wrapped around his neck.
While at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, he joined a veterans’ group and learned from some of the Vietnam vets that he had to learn to live with it. “This is the new normal,” they told him.
Also at Graterford, the administration was looking for vets to join a program that placed rescue dogs with inmates and taught the inmates to train them as service dogs.
They brought in a pit bull that had had been hit by a car. She had scars all over her. Her name was Layla. Layla hid under a table and wouldn’t respond to anyone, or even let anyone come close. Budhi sat with her and eventually she crawled out from under the table and went to him.
The dog broke something in him. He saw himself in the dog, abused and discarded. He and Layla were kindred spirits, and together they would heal each other.
“That dog saved me,” he said. “Layla saved my life. That dog was better than Prozac for me.”
He continued with the dog training program, training dogs to serve children with autism or vets suffering from PTSD or the physically disabled. The dogs all came from Philadelphia, and some were fighting dogs, animals that had endured horrible abuse. He healed the dogs. “Meanwhile, the dogs were healing me,” Budhi said.
While in prison, he met Ron James, a man who had spent 25 years of his life behind bars before turning his life around. James counseled inmates, letting them know that they have choices, that they can change. When Budhi got out of prison, James put him in touch with his friend, Jeff Bortner, who owns JLB Engineering in West York. He gave Budhi a second chance.
Still, Budhi wanted to work with dogs. He kind of fell into it, working with dogs that came to him through word of mouth. And it kind of spread. “I was surprised people would pay me to come out and play with their dogs,” he said. “I would do it for free. I wanted to give back to the dogs that literally saved me.”
He has a business called Training Buddy. His goal is to open a dog training facility, staffing it with vets and former inmates, hoping that the dogs can change their lives as they have changed his.
Not long ago, Budhi took Ryder for a four-day hike on the Appalachian Trail. Ryder loved it. “You could see the joy in him,” Budhi said.
He recalled the words of the judge when he was sentenced to prison. “You can’t keep living in the past,” the judge told him. “You can’t use the past as an excuse.”
He thought of those words while he was with Ryder on the trail and when he watches Ryder play with his other dog, a pit bull named Layla. (No relation to the dog he had in prison.) Layla had been abused when she was young and was having a hard time. Now, she and Ryder play constantly. Ryder taught Layla how to play. Ryder saved Layla.
“Dogs don’t live in the past and don’t think about the future,” said Budhi, now 44 and living in Windsor with his girlfriend. “They live for right now. They live in the moment. It’s really a great thing.”
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com