THOMASVILLE — When Michael Joiner went out to find a new service dog, he didn't expect it was going to be free.
But when the 43-year-old veteran fell in love with a new canine companion at a local shelter, he found out that all of the expenses had already been paid by an anonymous benefactor.
"I've got people that will help me, but to actually purchase a dog is a whole other ball game," Joiner said. "It totally floored me when this happened."
Joiner picked up his new companion from the veterinarian's office last week and plans to spend several months bonding with him, though he still doesn't know who was actually responsible for the adoption.
Once the two are bonded, the year-and-a-half-old canine, who Joiner said he plans to rename Thor, will be trained as a certified service dog elsewhere in Georgia by an organization that does so at no cost for veterans.
When the three-month training is completed, Thor will be ready to help Joiner through his social anxiety.
Joiner said he would like to meet whoever paid for his dog so he could at least say thank you.
"It restored my faith in humanity," he said.
With Joiner's current service dog Ginger retiring within the next few months, it was time for the former soldier to visit the Thomasville-Thomas County Humane Society to select his new best friend.
Joiner prefers shelter dogs, and while he doesn't hold anything against pure breeds, the veteran says he's more keen on mixes like his aging companion Ginger.
Perhaps most importantly, Joiner's next dog had to be friendly with people and other animals, "because if they're not, the VA makes you leave," he said.
So when Joiner came across Thor, a German Shepherd mix who fit all of his criteria, he couldn't wait to start the adoption process.
"The minute I saw him he got happy and I got excited," Joiner said. "It was like an instant connection. It was something that clicked."
It came as a complete surprise when Joiner checked the Humane Society's Facebook page one day to find out that Thor's adoption had already been paid for — complete with a free neutering.
"The most he cost me is gas money to go pick him up," Joiner said.
For more than a decade Joiner toured the globe in the Army, but by the time he was discharged, he had developed a condition that left him unable to navigate crowded spaces for extended periods of time.
"It's kind of like social anxiety on steroids," he said.
Nearly a year after he returned to civilian life, Joiner was living as a self-described hermit in the mountains of rural Kentucky, often facing difficulties in coping with his new condition.
"I wouldn't come outside or anything," Joiner said. "I was not a very nice person."
The service dog of a fellow veteran detected Joiner's condition, and eventually a medical adviser suggested he acquire one of his own to help manage his post-traumatic stress disorder.
That's when he met Ginger.
The then-four-day-old puppy was found in a ditch and trained as a PTSD service dog and has helped Joiner since by keeping him calm and distracting him whenever she senses he's uncomfortable.
"The dog works better than any pill ever could," he said.
Joiner eventually moved to Thomasville to be closer with family, and although he can't work a regular job due to his disability, he's kept himself busy by bonding with his furry friend.
Though Ginger will soon be retiring, Joiner says she isn't going anywhere.
Instead, Joiner says the 8-year-old Mountain Cur will live out the rest of her days on his property sleeping, playing and being loved just like any other dog deserves.
"She'll die in my care," he said. "She'll never go anywhere."