In 2013, President Obama proclaimed May as National Mental Health Awareness Month. The issue of mental illness in our military has reached crisis levels, with so many veterans seeking help from the VA that seems just out of their reach.
This brings me to the main topic of this blog, and that is psychiatric service dogs, particularly, ones who help veterans with severe cases of PTSD. These cases, which can stem from combat stress or sexual assault and/or traumatic brain injury, are so severe, that when veterans get a panic attack, they sometimes curl up on the floor in a fetal position and start crying. Most of us experience mild panic attacks for a variety of reasons, but the veteran’s experience is far worse.
These very special dogs are trained to recognize the onset of a panic attack, and when alerted to this, they begin tapping the veteran on the leg with their paw. This tapping sends a message to the veteran from the dog that they want attention, and the dog’s intent is to distract the veteran from whatever it is he/she is thinking or feeling. If that doesn’t work, the dog is trained to go and find someone to help the veteran. The dog will even sleep with the veteran, and is trained to wake him/her up if he/she experiences a terrible nightmare.
There is intense training involved, both for the dogs and veterans. Both have to come to a training center, and here is where the veteran will pick up their dog. The veteran doesn’t choose the dog, the dog chooses them. The trainers of the dogs look to see the body language in the dogs and in the veterans themselves and see which veteran the dog goes up to and bonds with. Researches are still gathering evidence that this bond has positive biological effects, but the bottom line is, the bond between the veteran and their service dog knows no bounds.
There are many worthwhile organizations that provide these psychiatric service dogs for veterans. Paws For Veterans and Patriot Paws are but two of the many organizations seeking donations so qualified veterans are not strapped with the extra burden of paying for veterinary care, grooming, food, and other routine expenses associated with owning such highly trained dog. The VA does not provide for any of these things, which is why these organizations are so worthwhile, and so worthy of donations. For many veterans living with PTSD, these dogs furnish a bridge between normal society and the emotionally charged world they face on a daily basis. For these veterans, the term “man’s best friend” takes on a whole new meaning, and these remarkable animals give purpose to an otherwise seemingly dismal existence.
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