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Recovering drug users, ailing dogs form bonds of need at Agora House
Residents care for animals infected with heartworms at Gainesville treatment center
Scruffy shows Nick his belly while visiting the Agora House on Wednesday afternoon. Recently several men going through substance abuse treatment at the Agora House for Men have recently started taking care of heartworm-infected dogs from the Humane Society. The dogs need someone to intensively take care of them so they may live and become adoptable. The experience gives the men a real sense of accomplishment as they go through treatment themselves.

Strip away the size difference, hair color and the fact that Taco has two more legs than Nick, and the result is a pair supporting each other to get better.

“It’s about the same way we were when we first came in,” said Nick, a resident at the Agora House for Men, a substance abuse treatment center in Gainesville. “We required a lot of attention to relearn life skills we forgot or never had, and the dogs are kind of the same way.”

Nick and Danny, two men receiving treatment at The Agora House, tend to heartworm-infected dogs Taco and Scruffy, respectively.

The Times did not disclose their full names for privacy concerns.

The four form a symbiotic relationship; the dogs need almost around-the-clock care for heartworm treatment, while Nick and Danny receive the therapeutic care of a wagging tail and lapping tongue.

“It keeps you from being selfish,” Nick said. “You have to take care of something else besides yourself.”

Julie Edwards, executive director of the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia, said the idea of the Agora men fostering the dogs dawned on her while chatting with Agora Program Director Scott Hinchman.

Target, the original name at the Humane Society for Taco, came from finding the stray dog running around in a Target parking lot.

Because of the eight- to 12-week treatment period to treat heartworms, foster homes to care for the dogs are rare.

“Many times they’re the dogs that unfortunately get euthanized, because owners a lot of times don’t want to take on that responsibility,” Edwards said, adding that the Humane Society is always looking for more foster homes for heartworm-positive dogs. “If someone’s adopting, they’d rather adopt a dog they know is healthy than one they know has an issue upfront.”

Living near Lake Lanier and the general prevalence of mosquitoes in the South compound the problem.

“There’s a lot of moisture, lot of mosquitoes, lot of heartworms,” Edwards said.

Participants in the Agora House program live in residential spaces around the area, a home feeling that follows a regimented day of work, therapy and frequent physical activity.

“We’re trying to create that active, healthy lifestyle and replace those old, bad behaviors with good behaviors and habits,” Hinchman said.

Nick and Danny keep meticulous logs for the dogs relating to their health, which involves mostly inactivity at the early phase to prevent heartworms entering the bloodstream.

Taco continually races around the people in the room, training for his best time on an invisible race track on the carpeted floor. Scruffy takes more of a relaxed approach like a politician at a dinner party; he greets everyone with a firm paw and solid eye contact before moving to the next guest for affection. When the lights go out, Scruffy jumps up to the foot of Danny’s bed to end the night.

“It was a win-win-win for everybody,” Hinchman said. “The dogs were pulled off of basically death row. The Humane Society gets fosters, and we do a lot of volunteering with them as well. And the guys get the animal and pet therapy. They don’t feel as lonely at night. They feel more involved, pulled into something.”

At just three months and 20 days old, Danny’s first child died, which Danny attributes to the beginning of his substance abuse.

“That’s when I lost control, you could say, when I started using,” he said.

To be a better father to his 20-month old baby girl, Danny said he needed to find help before he could be in her life.

“That’s why I haven’t pushed the issue about seeing her or anything like that, because I know deep down that I’m not ready right now,” he said.

After years as an athlete in high school, Nick found himself addicted to prescription pills he discovered after suffering injuries to his shoulder and knee.

“After a while you get to taking them where they don’t have the effect they’re supposed to have and you use them for other reasons,” Nick said.

Prescription abuse from former athletes, Hinchman said, has become more prevalent in his time working in substance abuse treatment.

“We have a big part of our population in our community of guys that played a lot of sports growing up, got injured and then prescription pills,” Hinchman said, adding the pills can sometimes lead to harder drugs.

At 36, Nick said he feels like he’s in the shape of his life, a feat attained by eliminating energy drinks, processed foods, candy and sweets. The active nature of the Agora House programs, which includes camping, hiking and running among others, feeds into the lifestyle Nick wants to maintain.

A symbol of Danny’s journey through substance abuse treatment, Scruffy might come home with Danny if he can convince his family to bring another onboard.

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