“I looked at Thor who was to be euthanized that day at the kill shelter. He was quiet and calm and looked like he didn’t belong with the other, more engaged dogs, and I thought, ‘I feel the same way.’”
That day, retired Army Capt. Adrian Veseth-Nelson not only saved Thor’s life, but claims Thor saved his. I recently heard Veseth-Nelson talk about the dog during a Military Pathways® webinar “Canine Companions and Your Emotional Health.” Although he didn’t know it when he met Thor, Veseth-Nelson’s anger, sleeplessness and restless mind were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He credits his companion dog with forcing him to engage in life while distracting him from his darker inclinations.
Veseth-Nelson’s experience with Thor is being echoed by other vets with PTSD who credit a dog for their improved condition. Now he and his wife, Diana, believe they’re helping save veterans’ lives with Battle Buddies, their mentoring and canine placement program for veterans with PTSD.
Battle Buddies joins a growing movement of canine-assisted therapy programs in the country. Paws for Purple Hearts mimics the military’s peer support tradition by teaching veterans with PTSD how to train service dogs for other veterans with physical and psychological health concerns. In the process, trainers must face their own issues, such as hyper-vigilance and emotional numbness, to effectively train the animals. Many recovering service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center participate in the program as part of an internship.
Within this movement, distinctions are made among service dogs, therapy dogs and companionship dogs. Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort to specific groups of people, such as those in nursing homes or rehabilitation facilities. Companionship dogs fill emotional and social needs.
Service dogs go through intensive training to perform specific tasks for people with visible or invisible disabilities. Examples include the dog checking out a dark room or turning on the light for a nervous veteran with PTSD; interrupting a nightmare by encouraging the person to move; or keeping track of everyday items such as keys and wallets. That training grants service dogs the right of public access under the amended Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing them to accompany their handlers in all public places. Your family pooch is not likely service dog material; service dogs are not pets.
What makes a good service dog?
Temperament, physical soundness and desire to work are some criteria. Maybe that would explain why we see certain breeds more often than others as service dogs. “Labradors, golden retrievers and lab-golden mixes are the most frequently used service dogs in the United States,” said Cathy Reisfield, Battle Buddies program coordinator.
Why do we look to dogs for help with PTSD?
Dogs have a long history of providing emotional support. Dogs are vigilant, protective, respond well to authoritative relationships, love unconditionally, help relearn trust and remember feelings of love, notes Dr. Tracy Stecker, assistant professor at the Dartmouth Medical School Psychiatric Research Center.
While there is ample anecdotal support for canine therapy, evidence-based support still needs to be developed to fully embrace it for PTSD patients, noted Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, psychiatry professor at Uniformed Services University and chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health, during a recent DCoE Monthly Webinar on integrative health. In cooperation with the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Paws for Purple Hearts plans to test and gather statistics on sleep studies, biomarker tracking and symptom reduction to support the premise that service dogs help PTSD patients.
Veseth-Nelson doesn’t need convincing. “I was in a dark place and Thor brought in the light,” he said.
More organizations that provide therapy dogs for veterans:
■Pets for Patriots™
■Paws and Stripes