by Stacy Pettit
Photography by Bob Foshay
For some veterans, the battles continue every day even after the guns have quieted, and they have returned to what was once a peaceful home. In Afghanistan and Iraq, each gun shot that stole away fellow soldiers and friends, and each IED blast that ripped away any chance of normality, left these veterans not only with obvious, external scars, but also with deep, hidden wounds. For these servicemen and women, the ghost of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continues to haunt their everyday lives, leaving some trapped in a dark world of war.
But one organization is training its own team to battle PTSD’s effects on veterans by leading them away from the unending battle with a little help from some four-legged friends. This past January, Therapetics Service Dogs of Oklahoma began a pilot program to train a group of puppies to become service dogs for returning veterans suffering with the mental illness.
“Our goal in this program is the same as the goal in our main program,” says Susan Hartman, executive director for Therapetics. “We want our veterans that we serve through this program to be able to get their lives back, to do the things they want to do in life that they’re not able to do currently. If they just want to get out of the house and go grocery shopping, if they can achieve those goals with one of our service dogs, then we have met our goal.”
For the first time in its 20 years of serving individuals with physical disabilities, Therapetics is adding a program to include veterans without physical disabilities.
“For some time, veterans with physical disabilities received priority status in our application process,” Hartman says. “The idea of serving our returning veterans has always been really important to Therapetics. PTSD was a medical condition we were going to be faced with. We needed to learn about it.”
In fact, experts believe PTSD has impacted 11 to 20 percent of returning veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs website. PTSD is also associated with elevated rates of suicide and substance abuse among veterans.
After discussing the possibility of the pilot program with community members, Hartman says she discovered the overwhelming need for such a program for veterans in Oklahoma. The new program was not expected to begin for a few more months. However, when Therapetics volunteers donated three German Shepherd puppies to be trained specifically for veterans with PTSD, Hartman says she knew the time to begin serving veterans with hidden, but sometimes crippling, disabilities was now.
“You could be talking about working with a veteran who hasn’t even left his house in six months, or who hasn’t gone into a restaurant in a very long time,” she says.
That life of fear and isolation was exactly the world Shawn Wright had lived in for more than a decade before turning to Therapetics. After serving as a combat medic in Bosnia in the 1990s, Wright was not able to break free from the feeling that he needed to be aware of the potential threats around him. And anything could trigger a flashback says his wife, Julie. At one time, while ordering take-out from a restaurant, an employee dropped a plate in the kitchen. “He actually hit the ground,” Julie says.
Wright continually avoided crowded public places and could not keep a steady job, eventually leading him to alcohol to deal with his dark world. After years of battling his life of fear, he was diagnosed with PTSD along with a traumatic brain injury. But having a name for his demons did not make life easier.
“Finding where you fit into society is kind of rough,” he says. Last summer, after researching ways to deal with PTSD, Shawn and Julie contacted Therapetics to ask if they would be interested in training a service dog for Shawn. A few months later, Shawn was partnered with his service dog Jake.
Shawn says Jake has made an overwhelming difference in his life, allowing him to go out in public and live a life again. With ease, Jake will stand between Shawn and another person during conversations, a situation that at one time brought Shawn anxiety when someone seemed to be too close. When Shawn has nightmares, Jake will turn on the bedroom light. And in times when Shawn is overwhelmed and in a panic, Jake will immediately bring comfort by standing against Shawn.
“Having Jake there reassures me that it’s OK to be in a crowd, and that no one will come behind me and attack me,” Shawn says. “He gives me a sense of security.” The success of Shawn and his dog last year were the roots for the new pilot program. Now, to ensure veterans like Shawn can get back to living a life free of fear, the donated German Shepherds for the new program are undergoing basic and advanced obedience classes. They are also working on learning how to do certain tasks for the veteran, which Hartman says is imperative, even if the client does not have a physical impairment.
“The service dogs that will be partnered with a veteran with PTSD will do a lot more than simply provide emotional comfort through their existence,” she says. “It goes far beyond that. The dog can go into a dark room and turn on a light. In some programs, dogs are trained to wake up a person when they’re having a nightmare.”
Like Jake does for Shawn, service dogs can also learn how to help ease a panic attack by leaning on the person, placing a paw on him or her, or resting its head on the individual’s lap, which provides a physical feeling to ground the veteran.
Before moving to Oklahoma to be a service dog instructor for Therapetics, Donna Willis instructed service dogs in California, training many of them specifically for PTSD service. Even though training a dog to be a service dog takes months of hard work, funding and dedication, Willis says it is more than worth it once the dog is matched with the client.
For the past four months, she has been working with three volunteer puppy raisers and trainers. These volunteers give their time to not only take care of the dog as their own pet, but also train it at home, in the Therapetics classroom, and out in the community.
Although the German Shepherds are quickly learning commands, the most difficult piece of training these dogs for the PTSD program will be socializing them in public, Willis says.
“Socialization is such a key part, because these dogs have to be pretty much bulletproof and 100 percent appropriate in public,” she says. “If you sat and thought about every place you as an individual might go, that’s what these dogs have to be exposed to.”
And because the clients for this pilot program might struggle with being in public due to their PTSD, Hartman says they plan to be patient when the time comes that the veteran begins working and training with the dog out in the community.
“When you walk into Wal-Mart with a service dog, your anonymity goes out the window,” she says. “Going out into the community with a service dog will be different for a veteran with PTSD because oftentimes they don’t want to be noticed. They don’t want to have to deal with the public.”
Hartman says the organization will begin taking applications for the dogs in a few months, and she expects to have the three dogs fully trained and placed in 18 months. Through donations, fundraising and grants, Therapetics will place these trained service dogs with individuals at no cost.
Volunteer puppy raiser and trainer Jennifer Bagley has been helping train one of these dogs, Trigger, for the past few months.
Although Bagley says Trigger has much more to learn before he can be placed with a client, she says she is proud to be part of such a needed program for veterans who have already given so much.
“I have never served my country, so this is my way to actually do that,” she says.