Veteran and Service Dog Run Races and Break Barriers Together

Army veteran Desire Rincon and service dog Roxie make the perfect pair.
By: Diana Bocco
Roxie and Desire participate in a muddy race

Roxie is one of the few service dogs in the world that gets to join her owner in some of the most extreme running challenges. In fact, Roxie has run marathons (including the marine corps marathon), participated in Tough Mudders and even completed Spartan races in MLB Stadiums. Not bad for a dog that wasn’t supposed to be able to run.

How It All Started

When Desire Rincon, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, got back from her deployment in 2011, her Veterans Affairs social caseworker suggested she get a service dog. Rincon was suffering from seizures that stemmed from hypoglycemia, a condition she developed after being treated for stomach cancer.

Rincon then got in touch with Pets4Vets, an organization that pairs rescued dogs with veterans in need of companion animals. Pets4Vets works only with animals taken from shelters or those who need a second chance. Pets4Vets found Roxie through a former military officer who specializes in breeding Australian Shepherds.

“As a puppy, apparently she’d had some issues with her hips and was not expected to be able to run,” Rincon says. “Pets4Vets covered the costs of Roxie’s training through a trainer who worked with Southeastern Guide Dogs, and trained Roxie as a service animal.”

Roxie was originally going to be trained as a therapy and post traumatic stress disorder animal for a veteran, but ended up being trained as a medical alert dog just for Rincon, who had no idea at the time how being paired with Roxie would change her life forever.

While going through training, Roxie’s handlers discovered that she has a unique ability—she can sense when somebody is going to have a seizure. “Roxie can alert me when I’m getting ready to have one,” Rincon says. “She will actually jump up and start barking incessantly and try to grab my shirt in order to get me on the ground.” This allows Rincon to find a safe place to have her seizure, a place where she can’t hit furniture or drop on concrete and get a concussion or otherwise harm herself.

In addition to alerting Rincon about her seizures, Roxie can also detect when her owner’s blood sugar is low. “She does this by sniffing me out and licking me,” Rincon says. “Although I am able to get a sense of when my sugar levels drop, I tend to blow it off or ignore it; Roxie will get obnoxious and give me a reminder.”

Joining the Race

Rincon’s battle with stomach cancer and hypoglycemia took its toll on her. But after two surgeries, aggressive radiation treatment, eight months of being bedridden and a long battle with depression, Rincon promised herself she would never be bound to a bed again and began running. “Running is a way to remind my body, and my soul, that I am still alive, that every sunrise is a gift and so is the ability to walk, take in air, feel the sun on my face,” she says.

At first, taking Roxie along on her runs was almost an afterthought. “I kind of limited myself to small races and ran fairly paranoid most of the time for fear that I would be sick on the course,” she says. “I was also afraid that if race staff found out that I suffered from seizures, race waiver or not, I’d be pulled from the course, so I never disclosed that information.”

“At the start line, you will not find a more pumped-up creature. When she hears the horn, or hears the word ‘go!’ she pretty much loses her mind, starts barking uncontrollably and takes off like a bat outta hell.”

Rincon took Roxie everywhere she went but kept the reason why a secret. At first, Rincon left Roxie at the staring line and ran races without her, then one day, Roxie decided that she’d had enough.

“The horn went off, and Roxie did NOT like seeing Mommy run off without her, so she broke her leash to catch up with me,” Rincon says. “When I saw she was right behind me, I just kept going and she followed me through all the obstacles—including the ice bath, the mud pits and right off the high dive at the finish. That’s when I realized I had a very special dog.”

Since then, it’s been a world of fun. Rincon has completed a number of Tough Mudder races and MudRuns—races that are basically an extended playground for adults with mud pits thrown in for good measure, Rincon says—with Roxie by her side.

“At the start line, you will not find a more pumped-up creature,” Rincon says. “When she hears the horn, or hears the word ‘go!’ she pretty much loses her mind, starts barking uncontrollably and takes off like a bat outta hell.” Fortunately, Roxie eventually calms down after half a mile and starts focusing on her work.

During obstacles, Roxie will follow her mom into them if she can do them—like jumping walls up to five feet tall, low-crawling under barb wire, tackling swimming obstacles and going through mud. “If the wall is too big or the obstacle is something she can’t physically do, she’ll go to the other side and wait for me, or follow me along on the side,” Rincon says.

When thinking about what Roxie means to her, Rincon says she has trouble putting her feelings into words. “Roxie has definitely been a steady rock in my post-military life, and has helped me tremendously. She’s unconditional love and she is, in a sense, a security blanket that provides me greater freedom without fear.”

Images: Courtesy Jaclyn Cavalier and Ben Wilcox