While researchers test high tech treatments such as hyperbaric oxygen chambers for post traumatic service disorder, man’s best friend is emerging as an effective low-tech alternative. We are most familiar with special assistance dogs that guide the blind. Now some special service dogs are helping disabled veterans, returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Jacob enlisted in the Navy when he was only 19. The Navy trained him as a Fleet Marine Force hospital corpsman which included instruction on battlefield surgery. But they did not prepare him for the emotional reaction he had his second day in Iraq when two young Iraqi sisters with a look of terror were brought into the clinic with gunshot wounds. Once he barely escaped a pair of mortars that exploded right in front of him. His eight months serving in Iraq were filled with a stream of wounded men and women that flowed into the clinic, many of whom died from their injuries.
Jacob returned home excited about plans to become a physician’s assistant. Those plans were cut short when he experienced his first panic attack driving through the Baltimore tunnel. Jake had no idea what the feelings of anxiety were about, and he began hyperventilating and passed out. More such attacks soon followed, he could barely move or breathe, and his body would clench while tears streamed down his face. Nightmares of injured and dead soldiers and civilians haunted him and made sleeping difficult. He began drinking heavily and even contemplated suicide.
A Veterans Administration hospital diagnosed him with PTSD, a disease that impacts many returning combat veterans. Jacob began therapy and took 11 pills daily. But all this brought only minimal relief. Just when he had about given up hope, he found an extraordinary companion who helped end the nightmares. He read an article about Puppies Behind Bars on the internet and applied for a service dog. Jacob had never owned a dog before. He had assumed service dogs were like robots performing simple commands. Mya would soon challenge his preconceptions, and create the human-animal bond that would both warm his heart and heal some of his symptoms.
Meanwhile, a litter of black lab puppies was born inside the prison walls in Bedford Hills Correctional Institute. The inmate volunteers trained two of them to work with veterans with psychological disorders. Everyone in the program soon realized that Mya, the smallest dog, had an uncanny ability to sense the mood of anyone around her, always laying at the feet of anyone who was particularly troubled that day. Mya progressed to training on the outside with a volunteer family, practicing commands in all conceivable settings, from downtown Manhattan business offices, to grocery stores and coffee shops.
There is often a special moment when dog and human meet and connect on an inexplicable level. Jacob flew to Colorado to meet the dogs and their instructors. He hung back as they approached the dogs, but Mya’s eyes connected with his and she flipped onto her back for a belly rub in front of him. For the next two weeks, Jacob and Mya were immersed in dog training. Jacob discovered Mya could perform amazing tasks. He could take her into a market where she could pick up a can of creamed corn and put it in his basket, a task he didn’t need with his disorder, but Mya was also trained to assist with physical disabilities. The dog was fitted with a special blue cape adorned with an American flag patch that read “Puppies Behind Bars Service Dog – Veteran”.
Mya was never a robot. She was a bouncy ball of energy who happily greeted visitors and whined when Jacob left her alone. But she was called to duty within days when Jacob had a major panic attack. Mya climbed on top of him and began licking his face. This time Jacob didn’t come out of the attack wanting to die. Sweating and tired, he put his arms around Mya and just held the dog close while she continued to comfort him. Things didn’t seem as bleak as usual….another being was there pulling for him and giving him the will to move forward. Mya is trained to dial 911, and can even sense a panic attack before it starts.
Jacob resumed college classes, finding that with Mya by his side he could handle the crowded spaces he’d avoided for years. The simple act of petting the dog had a calming effect. He got used to getting “The Look” folks gave him when they saw a physically able bodied person with a service dog. Jacob found he could even open up to people about his condition when they asked personal questions about him and Mya. Jacob explains, “If I didn’t have Mya I would not be able to leave the house.”
Over 200,000 veterans are currently being treated for PTSD at Veterans Administration hospitals. Minnesota Senator Al Franken authored a bill requiring the VA to study and create services like this for Veterans. He explains, “I really believe the dogs can provide tremendous benefit. The whole point of this is to measure in a scientifically valid way what the benefits are of service dogs to vets with psychological injuries and make a better life for these guys and women who have put everything on the line for us.” Our canine friends, with their intelligence and love for humans, provide therapeutic benefit serving those who have faithfully served us.