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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Traumatized vets say service dogs help them to live

Nation & World | Traumatized vets say service dogs help them to live | Seattle Times Newspaper
WASHINGTON — Weeks after Chris Goehner, 25, an Iraq war veteran, got a dog, he was able to cut in half the dose of anxiety and sleep medications he took for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The night terrors and suicidal thoughts that kept him awake for days on end ceased.
Aaron Ellis, 29, another Iraq veteran with the stress disorder, scrapped his medications entirely soon after getting a dog — and set foot in a grocery store for the first time in three years.
The dogs to whom they credit their improved health are not just pets. They are psychiatric service dogs trained to help traumatized veterans leave the battlefield behind as they reintegrate into society.
Because of stories like these, the federal government, not usually at the forefront of alternative medical treatments, is spending several million dollars to study whether research supports anecdotal reports the dogs might speed recovery from the psychological wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In dozens of interviews, veterans and their therapists reported drastic reductions in PTSD symptoms and in reliance on medication after receiving a service dog.
Veterans rely on their dogs to gauge the safety of their surroundings, allowing them to venture into public places without constantly scanning for snipers, hidden bombs and other dangers lurking in the minds of those with the disorder.
In August, Jacob Hyde got his service dog, Mya, from Puppies Behind Bars, a program based in New York state that uses prisoners to raise and train dogs for lives of service. The organization has placed 23 dogs with veterans with PTSD in the past two years, training them to obey 87 commands.
"If I didn't have legs, I would have to crawl around," said Hyde, 25. "If I didn't have Mya, I wouldn't be able to leave the house."
If Hyde says "block," the dog will stand perpendicularly in front of him to keep other people at a distance. If he asks Mya to "get his back," the dog will sit facing backward by his side.
The dogs are trained to jolt a soldier from a flashback, dial 911 on a phone and sense a panic attack before it starts. Perhaps most important, the veterans' sense of responsibility, optimism and self-awareness is renewed by caring for the dogs.
The dogs help soldiers understand "what's happening as it's happening, what to do about it, and then doing it," said Joan Esnayra, a geneticist whose research team has received $300,000 from the Defense Department to study the issue. "You can use your dog kind of like a mirror to reflect back your emotional tenor."
The dog is also often the first visible manifestation of a former soldier's disability. Because people are curious about the animal, the veteran gets an opportunity to talk about his condition and his war experiences, discussions that can contribute to recovery.
More broadly, the dogs help increase public awareness of PTSD, which the Veterans Affairs Department said affects about one quarter of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with whom it has worked.
Under a bill written by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., veterans with PTSD will get service dogs in a pilot program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Training a psychiatric service dog and pairing it with a client costs more than $20,000. The government already helps provide dogs to soldiers who lost their sight or were severely wounded in combat, but had never considered placing dogs for emotional dam


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