Wounded warriors and troubled teens

by Jack Sommars

Studies show that 10% of all troops returning from Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Until recently, antidepressant drugs, counseling and therapy were the only means available to treat this debilitating illness. But, today, veterans who are at the end of their rope are finding comfort at the end of a leash.

Specially trained psychiatric service dogs are interrupting their partners’ nightmares, reminding them to take their medications, warning of approaching strangers and reducing their anxiety and stress.

Veterans with PTSD can now feel safe in darkened theaters and busy supermarkets or even while driving. After only a week with his dog, one veteran’s wife reported, "My husband and I have done more things together in the last six days than we have in the past six months because Mitzy was there and Gary was not afraid."

“The dog acts like a sponge, soaking up all of the bad thoughts and fears.”
— Pat Schwartz, former ECAD trainer

Project HEAL is a new program offered by Educated Canines Assisting Disabilities (ECAD). It places certified service dogs with veterans who have psychiatric and/or physical disabilities as a result of war-related injuries and experiences. The nonprofit organization was founded by Lu and Dale Picard and has placed more than 140 certified service dogs in the past 15 years.

"We interview all clients to find out what they enjoyed doing before they went to war and what’s missing in their lives today," explains Pat Schwartz, a trainer with ECAD, who has recently retired.

"Going to movies is very common," she says. "Being in a dark movie theater is like being in Iraq at night, which is the most dangerous time. We train the dog to sit with its head on your lap or to lie across your feet.

"Then, if our clients become stressed, we encourage them to pet or massage their dogs. The dog acts like a sponge, soaking up all of the bad thoughts and fears. And an incident that might have taken them four hours to get over can be overcome in a few minutes. The soldier or marine can calm down and refocus. That tactile stimulation from the dog really helps.

"We actually go to the movies with our clients. Nothing makes me happier than sitting behind this guy who was shaking when I first met him and, two days later, watching him petting his dog, laughing like crazy," she adds.

Because many veterans with PTSD are threatened by strangers, crowds or surprises, the dogs are also taught "block" and "got my back" commands.

"When you’re at the supermarket, for example, the dog will stand 12 to 18 inches in front of you, parallel to your body, so that no one can come really close to you and invade your personal space," explains Schwartz. "Meanwhile, the dog constantly watches behind you and will let you know if someone is approaching."

Nightmares are also common among returning war veterans.

"Many get violent when they’re awakened," says Schwartz. "They think that the person waking them up is in the dream, trying to hurt them. That’s why a lot of their wives or mothers will wiggle the veteran’s big toe [to awaken them].

"But the service dog pushes you with his nose," she explains. "We have placed one dog that very gently puts her paw on her partner’s cheek and taps him until he wakes up."

The program’s reach extends beyond veterans to help suffering teens as well.

Each dog receives obedience and preliminary training by an adolescent who is attending an alternative school at a residential treatment center. The program takes place in five facilities in lower New York, all of which specialize in helping children with emotional, behavioral and learning problems.

"By assuming the roles of teachers and service providers, these students learn to set goals and solve problems using patience, communication skills, self-control, frustration tolerance and motivational techniques," says Schwartz.

"Most of them are struggling with anger and pain, have difficulty succeeding at traditional schoolwork and often feel incapable of giving or receiving love," she adds. "Working with the dogs helps even the most difficult children establish a sense of self-worth, master their tempers and learn to trust again.

"For many, it is the first time they have experienced ongoing success. The pride that they gain from their accomplishments is incredible," she adds.

After their dogs are trained, the teens work one-on-one with the veterans, showing them how to bond with their new best friends.

The dogs, which are usually Labrador retrievers or golden retrievers, are provided at no cost to the veterans.

Schwartz says that she doesn’t suffer from separation anxiety when her beloved four-legged companions leave ECAD’s Florida training facility to begin their new lives.

"Everybody says to me, ‘Pat, how can you let these beautiful dogs go?’ I say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I just need to be with these dogs and veterans for one hour to realize how special they are and how much they need each other. These men and women have sacrificed so much for us. It’s time we give something back to them."

For more information about Educated Canines Assisting Disabilities and Project HEAL, visit the website, www.ecad1.org.

Jack Sommars is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo.