By Gregg Laskoski
If you’ve been prescribed pills that don’t work, you have been given a window into one of the difficulties that wear down veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And over many years their struggles have also been compounded by VA officials and physicians. Their skepticism toward service dogs may have prevented or delayed many veterans from receiving positive, lifesaving therapy.
Thankfully, that’s changing. It’s been a painfully slow process. But, researchers and medical experts in the public and private sectors are increasingly recognizing and validating the distinct benefits and contributions of service dogs.
To be clear, service dogs are not the panacea for PTSD.
There is no cure, and it never goes away.
That’s important for the public to understand and we must recognize that the scars of profound horrors remain perilously fresh. No matter how old, they do not subside and heal. But, a well-trained service dog tuned in to its veteran may be lifesaving.
At K9 Partners for Patriots, for instance, dogs that are paired with veterans (who are taught how to train their K9 to become a working service dog in a free, 6-month program) are screened for their ability to alert positively to the scent of cortisol/adrenaline. That innate ability enables these K9s to ‘read’ the veteran’s anxiety and stress and take immediate action to draw the veteran’s focus away from the stress and back to the present, doing whatever it takes to gain the veteran’s full attention. And during nightmares and flashbacks that are typical with PTSD, the ability of their service dog to respond rapidly helps reduce both the severity and frequency of such events.
The Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans is a group of 17 nonprofits across the U.S. that share the same guiding principles of service to our veterans. And, like K9 Partners for Patriots, they do not charge a single dime for the service dog and training they provide.
About five-plus years ago, after watching a well-trained service dog at a store in Keystone Heights, Florida, where he lives, U.S. Army veteran Travis Mack asked the dog’s veteran handler about it. And he learned where they were trained. He applied and was paired with his service dog, ‘Bear.’ They traveled 232 miles (round trip) to attend their training class once a week for six months. Mack says his family had suffered greatly before he was paired with Bear. But they welcomed the progress of their father and husband and his K9 partner.
“Having a service dog gave me a reason to fight for my life and connections. And my family became a part of the journey. It improved my quality of life as well as theirs,” he noted.
“People ask me: ‘How does your service dog reduce stress or anxiety?’ And I tell them, ‘He’s got my 6.’ Once the service dog begins to work, it takes your mind off what may have spiked the adrenaline by redirecting your focus. This allows the veteran to navigate everyday obstacles continually.
“Knowing you have four-legged ‘medical equipment’ with you gives you a newfound boost to get back out and start living. In turn, you end up having a reduced level of stress. You may have your service dog post or watch your back in certain situations. And knowing the service dog is there to engage in those activities lowers the stress and anxiety. This helps the veteran trying to do it alone.
“And the training you learn becomes a part of your life and mission away from the military. It almost purposely allows you a reason to go out to practice integrating with the public. My family became a part of the journey.”
Reconnection with Family
“Service dogs help veterans reconnect with their families by combating numerous issues involved with PTSD. PTSD causes veterans to feel disconnected or distracted within the household. The family suffers greatly. However, they notice the changes and how the service dog gave me a reason to fight for my life and connections,” Mack said.
“Bear became a part of the family, which allows me to have a new level of confidence in having someone by my side,” added Mack. “Sometimes I may not feel like talking, and he is there to help me through my situation and battle my demons. Having a service dog allows me to expand the quality of my life. There are times when things may be wrong that I have yet to notice, but he is there to let me know, ‘Hey, something is a little off,’ and gives me time to combat the issue.
“I am no longer the veteran who was always confined in the house and never wanted to go outside. Now, they’re able to experience more with their father and husband. My wife, LaToya, believes it is one the best choices I could have made as she notices all of the welcome changes that having Bear has given me. Even when we are home and he is ‘off-duty’ at times. He has increased the quality of life for all of us in my family!”
At K9 Partners for Patriots, all our veterans and K9s are part of a growing family. And to keep everyone connected—veterans, trainers, staff and volunteers—they’re encouraged to return for special events for veterans and their families. Mack will tell you they’re worth the trip.
Gregg Laskoski is the communications director for K9 Partners for Patriots, a 501(c)3 nonprofit in Brooksville, Florida.