Local puppy Falkor is a popular face around the Saint Mary’s campus.
Although Falkor may appear cute and harmless on the outside, he has a distinct purpose: to provide physical and emotional support to former combat veterans. His owner, Stephen Eberly, wants everyone to know about the benefits of a service dog, how they support veterans, and Falkor’s impact on the newly-opened Veterans Resource Center.
You’ve probably seen him around campus. He’s friendly, and good-looking, not to mention an aspiring IG model. The only drawbacks are that he’s a little short, very furry, and not terribly talkative. Meet Falkor, the service dog of SMC. Falkor belongs to Stephen Eberly, 43, a former Iraq War veteran and current SMC student.
Falkor’s journey with Stephen began back in March 2019. Stephen met Falkor through the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) for Vets in Walnut Creek. But being paired together didn’t mean that Stephen 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” Stephen explains. “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 Stephen when he’s agitated, and reminds him when it’s time to take his medications.
“The way it works is that Falkor pays attention to what I’m doing” Stephen 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, Stephen captures it by rewarding 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” Stephen says. “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 Stephen’s 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” Stephen muses. “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.”
As Vice President of the Veterans and Military Affiliated Gaels (VMAG), Stephen 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 Veteran Resource Center (VRC) in Filippi Academic Hall, which opened a mere two weeks ago.
“Veterans aren’t usually the type to advocate for themselves” Stephen 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’.”
Stephen 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],” Stephen says when pressed on what he wants the ultimate vision of the VRC to look like. “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.”
For now, Stephen’s main objective 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” Stephen says. “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 adds with a laugh.
Madison Sciba '24,