By Janet McAfee
Twix is a special dog to San Bernardino resident John Silva, a loving canine companion who helps him stay calm and in control of his emotions. An Army combat Veteran, Silva completed two deployments, one to Iraq and a second in Afghanistan and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After six years in the military, he acknowledges he returned a changed man, occasionally becoming upset, depressed, and anxious. Although Twix is not a certified service dog, Silva and his wife, Rachel Hester, report Twix was instrumental in helping him remain calm and keep his stress under control.
We dog lovers know how their presence in our lives can lift our moods and help reduce stress. The public is largely aware of how service animals assist physically disabled humans, such as guide dogs helping people who are blind. They are not as familiar about how an emotional support animal helps those with anxiety or other mental health condition. An increasing number of returning combat veterans rely on the unconditional love and support from canines to help with stress.
When his two dogs went missing from his backyard, Silva was devastated and did not know how he could cope with the loss of Twix. They found Duke a few hours later, but he feared the worst for Twix knowing that the bonded pair of dogs always stayed together. He was particularly afraid for Twix given his breed, knowing that unscrupulous people often steal pit bulls for illegal purposes.
Silva went to the media pleading for whoever had Twix to return him and reached out to a San Diego based organization, “Sherri’s Project: Wounded Warrior Pack”, a nonprofit that finds and trains service dogs for combat-wounded military, as well as victims of military sexual assault. Teddy Garcia Jr., a veteran with the group who had a service dog of his own, made finding Twix a full time endeavor, understanding the emotional roller coaster the dog’s absence created for Silva.
The San Bernardino Sun newspaper covered the story of Silva and his missing dog, and the article they posted on their Facebook page went viral with half a million views and thousands of Shares. A tearful Silva made appearances on local television and radio. The publicity paid off.
Last Thursday another call came in, and Silva’s wife, yelled excitedly to the volunteers, “We found Twix!” They learned a woman in nearby Arrowbear had Twix. She was at a shopping area near the Silva’s home when she saw a man yelling at a dog to get out of his truck. The friendly dog tried to back into the truck, and the man yelled angrily and drove away, leading the good Samaritan to come to the wrong conclusion that the dog was his pet being abandoned.
It was an emotional filled reunion when Silva and Hester drove up the mountains to retrieve Twix. Silva stated, “I started crying when I saw his head pop up. Every day we had messages or texts giving us tips, many of them from folks trying to catch dogs they thought were Twix, and others from people offering us prayers and support. It turns out Twix just wanted to go for a ride!”
Research is currently underway to substantiate how service dogs help our returning “wounded warriors”. It appears the dogs can assuage the hypervigilance common in vets with PTSD. Many report that for the first time they are able to sleep soundly through the night, knowing that a naturally alert soul is standing guard over them. These animals draw out the most isolated personality and having to praise and train them helps traumatized vets overcome emotional numbness.
Evidence is mounting that shows bonding with dogs has positive biological effects on humans, including elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin. Meg Daley with the Warrior Canine Connection reports, “This increased oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects – – – the opposite of PTSD symptoms.”
Veteran John Silva reports overwhelming joy at having Twix back in his life. He is overcome with emotion recalling how the community rallied to help. He states, “I was hoping to get some people’s attention, but had no idea how this story would bring in so many people to help. I just want to thank everyone who helped and shared our story.”