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Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 5

At military and veterans' hospitals around the country, dogs are increasingly part of the cure

All Animals magazine, November/December 2010

  • The greatest benefit of Venuto's companionship "is the bond and what he does for me emotionally," says veteran Bill Smith, "because I'm able to handle things better with my family." View a PDF of this story here. David Paul Morris

  • At a Nevada pet supply and grooming store where Christopher Hill buys treats for Verde, the service dog demonstrates his money-handling skills. Danny Moloshok

  • Through Washington Humane Society's Dog Tags program, director of animal behavior and training Kevin Simpson helps veterans train shelter dogs for new homes. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • "We have millions of shelter dogs dying to be in service," says dog trainer Tamar Geller, whose Operation Heroes & Hounds teaches wounded and traumatized vets the skills to act as trainers for homeless dogs. Sharon Cavanagh

  • "I just mentally picked up that somebody's watching my back," says Hill of Verde's role in his healing. Danny Moloshok

For some veterans, though, the mere presence of a dog is only the beginning.

“Companionship is not enough,” says Tamar Geller, a dog trainer and former Israeli Army special forces officer whose Operation Heroes & Hounds program pairs wounded veterans with shelter dogs in need of training.“If we don’t get them out of their own selves and make them do things with the dogs, they’re just going to be in bed all day.”

Geller says that training dogs using positive, humane methods teaches veterans skills that will be helpful in civilian life. Like many people, dogs don’t respond well to macho, military-style communication, so if trainers try to use that approach, Geller says, “the dog is like, ‘Talk to the paw.’ ...When they do it my way, when they’re playful and softer, the dog is like, ‘Oh, I want to listen to you.’ ”

Learning to be soft and to sound soft is a challenge. Affecting an emotionally cheery tone is not something that comes naturally to anyone suffering from PTSD—and Strategic Use of a Baby Voice is not a lesson covered in boot camp.

The irony was not lost on Christopher Hill, who chuckles at the recollection of his initial work as a trainer with Paws for Purple Hearts. “You have a guy who’s been in the Marine Corps 20 years, who’s barking orders at guys for 20 years, and all of a sudden I have to sound like Richard Simmons to get this dog to do the simplest things,” says Hill.

Luckily, the dogs train the trainers on what works best. “I’m coming across with this bass voice, and the dog’s like, ‘OK, he’s not really happy with me,’ so he won’t respond. But you come with the joy and the little squeaky voice, and he loves it,” says Hill. “So being a Marine, you do what you have to do to make it work, so—Richard Simmons, here we come.”

Many veterans struggle to strike the right tone. “The only way I can get a Marine who’s emotionally numb with PTSD to sound like that is to tell them they have to do it to help a fellow Marine,” says Yount.

That incentive was deeply meaningful to Hill. “I can’t fight on the front lines anymore ...” he says. “So what can I do to stay in the fight? I can actually help guys who are coming back.”

The dogs who complete the training are placed as service animals, becoming companions to struggling veterans. Bill Smith—who served in a forward army surveillance unit in Korea in the late ’70s and has been in a wheelchair since 1995 due to a misdiagnosed spinal injury—calls himself “dog-blessed.” His service dog Venuto, a “24-karat golden retriever” trained by Paws for Purple Hearts, can pick up a quarter or a credit card; turn a light on and off; and open a door for Smith or tow him along in his wheelchair if his arms and shoulders grow too tired. But Smith, who also has PTSD, is most grateful for the dog’s emotional help.

Recently at a Best Buy, he started experiencing a panic attack in the checkout line. “It feels like everything just sort of stands still and you separate from everything around you,” says Smith. “... And Venuto, he just comes right up and pushes really close into me. And I just put my arm around him and start petting him, and I knead his skin with my thumb and my index fingers. ... And I get a grip, and I come back down from wherever that was.”

Helping train dogs to provide that relief can itself be a therapeutic distraction for PTSD sufferers. “It gives them a sense of purpose to get outside themselves, and a calling that’s greater than their disease,” says Jaffe.

Analysts often use exposure therapy, in which a patient faces the object or condition he fears, learning that it can be survived. For those suffering from PTSD, crowded public spaces can be a nightmare, a potential trigger for their worst memories from their time in combat. But service dog training includes acclimating the animals to crowds and noise, so sometimes veterans have to take the dogs to a ballgame or a grocery store, where people are bound to speak to the person at the end of the leash. To the dogs, it’s an introduction to the human sphere; to the trainers, it’s a re-introduction to the noisy, chaotic, normal world—one done in the name of helping the dog, a mission that diverts their focus from their own anxiety.

“The dogs need to learn the world’s a fun place, a nice place, a nonthreatening place. And that way they don’t get defensive and attack someone in a supermarket or something,” Jaffe says.“The guys need to learn that too.”

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