When Ryan (not his real name), 37, returned home from two deployments with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq from 2005 to 2008, he began withdrawing from social situations and experienced chronic anxiety. Nights brought no respite – his sleep was interrupted by punishing nightmares.
“I had every calling card of a veteran in distress,” he said in an interview. When his wife told him she thought he may have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he shrugged it off. “I wasn’t automatically going to accept [the diagnosis] because as an infantry veteran, we’re big tough guys. We don’t need help with anything.”
The dogs, mostly recruited from rescue organizations, receive 5-7 months of specialized training to assist the veterans.
While Ryan was skeptical about the program and whether it would work for him, he agreed to try it. After working with Bullet, a cream-colored golden retriever, he realized his life was improving.
“I stopped self-medicating, started advocating for myself, and became more comfortable socializing in public.” In his 3 years with Bullet, Ryan was able to work on his marriage, advance his career, and become a homeowner.
“The dreams I never thought were attainable started coming to fruition, and I was happy and comfortable for the first time in as long as I could remember.”
Unfortunately, Bullet died from a rare heart condition after a few years, and when that happened, NWBB immediately began working with Ryan to find him a new dog to fill the void left by Bullet.
Soon, Ryan began working with Twitch, who, like Bullet, knew when Ryan was becoming anxious, angry, or depressed before he did, he said.
“These dogs pick up on PTSD symptoms and come over and press themselves against you, push their faces into yours, and give you those big puppy dog eyes as if to say, ‘I got you. Everything is going to be okay.’ ”
The same thing happened when Ryan had night terrors and nightmares. “These dogs wake you up, and again, you’re greeted with this sweet puppy dog face.”
NWBB founder and CEO Shannon Walker, who has been training dogs for 25 years and whose father served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s, leads a 5-week training course for the veterans and their “battle buddies” so that the veterans can learn how to bond with and benefit from their new service dogs.
Finding the perfect match
Veterans are paired with trained service dogs based on their lifestyle and personality. For instance, a Vietnam veteran who is having trouble walking may be paired with a calm dog while a younger veteran who runs each morning is paired with a more active dog.
NWBB operates on funds from private donors and nonprofit organizations that make it financially feasible for the veterans to travel to Washington State and stay for the time required to train with their service dogs.
“Our service dogs are there in the midnight hour when no one else is,” she said. “Our veterans are fighting internal battles that no one else sees but the dogs. The dogs alert on their adrenaline and bring them back to the moment of now, interrupting suicidal ideations, panic attacks, and night terrors.”
Joshua Morganstein, MD, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster, said in an interview that “PTSD can be devastating for service members and veterans and is often associated with comorbid mental health conditions, such as anxiety and substance use.”
He noted that for many people, dogs and other animals can be an important source of physical, emotional, and psychological comfort.
“Programs like the Northwest Battle Buddies are important for us to study and better understand the extent to which trained animals are able to help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD and associated disorders and, perhaps most importantly, enhance the ability of service members and veterans to function and live in ways that feel healthy and productive to them,” said Dr. Morganstein.
He added that the concept of a “battle buddy” is a term pioneered by the U.S. Army in 2002 and describes a “formal, rather than ad hoc, system of peer support in which service members are assigned buddies.
“Buddies look out for each other, encourage self-care and self-advocacy and, when needed, help their buddy to seek help. Buddies remind us that someone is looking out for us and there is someone we look out for as well, both of which are protective during difficult times,” he said.
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