Gary Carruth sought out the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park after his life since the war had begun to close in on him.

The former U.S. Marine, who said he pulled two tours of duty in Iraq, described his life in San Antonio, Tex., as that of a virtual shut-in.

Asked why he wanted to get a service dog, Carruth replied dryly, "to get me off my butt."

Carruth was one of three veterans to receive canine companions Saturday during the university's winter commencement at Lawrence Jones Middle School.

Part of the university's mission is to provide trained dogs to military veterans who are struggling with physical or emotional injuries related to their service.

Carruth said he medically retired from the Marines last year after he achieved the rank of gunnery sergeant. He said he has nerve damage and other lasting injuries as a result of blasts from improvised explosive devices.

He said he also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that makes him nervous around large groups of people. That much was evident on Saturday as he stood on stage with his hands stuffed in his blue jeans.

His mood visibly brightened when he took Bria's leash from a woman who helped raise the black Labrador Retriever as a volunteer with Bergin.

The university was founded by Bonita Bergin, who was present at Saturday's ceremony. According to staff, the Labath Avenue institution is the only one in the world to offer accredited degrees in canine studies and assistance dog education.

The non-profit university relies on donations for its operating budget, which last fiscal year was about $900,000, said Becca Richardson, the school's director of development.

She said the dogs are bred and live their first few weeks at the campus before they are handed over to "puppy raisers," who continue to work with the dogs until they are about a year old.

The dogs assigned to military veterans have to have a certain sensitivity for the work, Richardson said.

Among other things, the dogs are trained to wake their master up if he is experiencing a night terror or to stand as a buffer between him and other people in a crowd.

Robert Linder, a Coast Guard veteran and former correctional officer who lives in Bakersfield, said his new Golden Retriever, Daisy, will give him "the courage to get back out" into the world.

Linder said he suffered a brain injury and PTSD after he was nearly killed in a 2006 prison fight.

Steve Roberts, a Gulf War-era veteran with the U.S. Army who has multiple sclerosis, said he's hoping his dog, Xander, will help him crawl out of the "very black place" he's been in for five years.

Each of the veterans paid for their own room and board while going through the two weeks of training required by Bergin, Richardson said.

She said the university has a waiting list of veterans who are hoping to get their own dogs.