Service dog helps a mass shooting survivor take back her life

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Shepherd's service dog, Spree. (WINK News photo)
Shepherd’s service dog, Spree. (WINK News photo)

Even one year later, the pain and fear felt inside the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School still haunts the survivors. One survivor overcame her woes when she was matched with a furry, four-legged friend.

Haylee Shepherd was determined to go back to Marjory Stoneman Douglas when it reopened last March.

“I really wanted to,” said Shepherd, a junior. “I knew it was going to be hard.”

Every day she would wake up, grab her backpack and begin her trek to school.

“As soon as I cut through the bushes, I would just get a pit in my stomach,” Shepherd said.

But, halfway down Holmberg Road, she would stop.

“She would just sit there and cry and call me hysterical,” said Andrea Gilman, Shepherd’s mother. “She just couldn’t get past the building.”

Gilman is referring to building 12. It is the site confessed gunman, Nikolas Cruz, opened fire on Feb. 14, 2018. Cruz killed 17 people, 14 of whom were students.

The gunshots in building 12 still echo in Shepherd’s head as her class hunkered down.

“They heard a lot of things,” Gilman said. “They smelled a lot of things, but they didn’t actually get to visualize and connect the dots until they were put into that hallway. They walked into a warzone.”

Shepherd said she did not feel comfortable describing what she saw in the hallway as the memories still haunt her, giving her nightmares.

“We tried private therapy, we tried EMDR, we tried yoga, scented oils, we got her an apple watch because she was having panic attacks,” Gilman said. “We got her a new bed to help her sleep — nothing worked.”

But, one thing did ease Shepherd’s pain.

“The dogs gave her the comfort,” Gilman said. “With so much going on and a single mother and three kids and school and work, I’m like I’m not getting a puppy cause even a puppy wouldn’t have necessarily solved her problem.”

When Gilman heard about a Naples based non-profit focused on training service dogs, she and her daughter applied.

But they were immediately turned down. The non-profit primarily works with veterans. Non-veterans can apply, but it could take up to three years to five years to get a service dog as the non-profit lacks substantial funding.

Shepherd’s hopes of going back to school quickly diminished to the dismay of her mother. Gilman just wanted her daughter to be a regular child who doesn’t live in a constant state of fear.

But then, something amazing happened.

“A few days later, I got a phone call from the Guardian Angels saying that someone had donated a dog to an MSD student and they wanted me to resubmit,” Gilman said.

Shepherd and her service dog, Spree. (WINK News photo)
Shepherd and her service dog, Spree. (WINK News photo)

The mother and daughter went through the grueling application process again with the hope that they would be selected.

“It was a lot of not knowing,” Shepherd said. “Just sending in the application and waiting.”

Then, Shepherd was invited by Guardian Angels Medical Services Dogs to its training farm over the summer to bond with her match.

“She was so sweet and gentle and soft and motherly,” Shepherd said. “It was just an instant connection where I felt safe with her.”

“The minute they met,” Gilman said, “tears started pouring down my face because it was like this dog had been with us our entire life.”

Spree, Shepherd’s new companion, helped her heal. Her nightmares stopped and she had the strength to return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“It’s unbelievable what this dog has done for her,” Gilman said.

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