Trained dogs help those who served cope with PTSD

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published February 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 1, 2013 at 9:43 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Christie Brekken, right, helps Cheri Arnold teach Molly, a service dog, to stay during a training session for A Veteran’s Best Friend. Arnold, a Desert Storm veteran who served as an Air Force medical technician, said Molly has difficulty with “stay” because she likes being right next to Arnold.

— With her dog, Molly, by her side, Cheri Arnold was able to do something new this winter. For the first time in years, she went Christmas shopping.

Arnold, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, sustained a spinal injury during her work as an Air Force medical technician. In the past, the crowds have been too overwhelming for Arnold, but Molly helps keep her centered.

“Instead of focusing on my ‘demons,’ I can focus on her,” Arnold said. “Kids are always really excited to see the dog, and everyone who comes up to us is positive. I can focus on the teaching opportunity rather than on myself.”

Arnold has been training Molly since 2011, and in August, the pair joined the inaugural class of the Cabot-based PTSD service dog training program A Veteran’s Best Friend.

The program is a nonprofit, Christian ministry serving veterans by helping them afford and train a service dog. Trained service dogs can cost around $20,000 in some cases.

“It’s almost impossible for veterans to get a dog,” PTSD therapist and program founder Greg Sporer said. “It can take two years for veterans to raise the funds for a trained dog in some programs.”

Thanks to donations from churches and community organizations and a team of volunteers, A Veteran’s Best Friend is able to offer the program for $6,000 per veteran. The program helps veterans cover the cost by helping them find community sponsors to pledge $25 per month for 15 months of training.

A retired Air force veteran himself, Sporer saw many cases of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, during his time counseling veterans. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people develop after experiencing a dangerous event, and people with the disorder often feel stressed or scared despite being perfectly safe.

“Most PTSD is about isolation,” Sporer said. “It’s triggered easily by things as simple as a box. Because when they were fishing, a box meant a bomb to the veteran.”

In his counseling work, Sporer had long used dogs to help veterans relax.

“I didn’t realize I was basically doing PTSD dog training already,” Sporer said.

Along with a team of three other trainers and a chaplain, Sporer works as both a dog trainer and PTSD therapist with the program. There are currently five veterans and dogs in a class, and a waiting list of people hoping to raise enough money to start training in April. The program includes 15-plus weeks of service-dog training, as well as therapy for the veterans. By the end of the course, the dogs should be able to help not only calm veterans during a panic attack, but perform tasks such as fetching a ringing phone or turning lights on and off.

But the main benefit of the PTSD service dogs is the way the bond between dog and owner can pull the veterans out of their safe zones.

“Veterans with PTSD can be so uncomfortable that they become a prisoner at home,” Sporer said. “These dogs help veterans get out. The dog helps them relax, help them deal with a panic attack.”

When properly trained, service dogs can learn to nuzzle or lean on their owners when the animals smell adrenaline coming from them during a tense moment or a panic attack.

Cheri Arnold first realized her dog, Molly, would be a good service dog when the dog began instinctively trying to comfort her when she was stressed or in pain. Cheri adopted the dog after Molly lost one of her legs and needed rehabilitation following abuse from a previous owner.

“I would have to carry her outside if she needed to go,” Arnold said. “Molly spent two days in my lap. I had to talk to her a lot.”

But soon, Molly was giving back the attention and care that Arnold had shown her. After going through basic obedience training, Molly is already learning to work around Arnold’s crutch and wheelchair. Despite her missing leg, Molly gets around as easily as nearly any service dog. Once their training is completed, Arnold hopes to take Molly to visit more veterans, especially those who have lost limbs.

Once the dogs are far enough along in training to pass a public-access test, they’re given a special vest that indicates the dog is a service dog. Although many people are familiar with the idea of a service dog for the visually impaired, service dogs for veterans with PTSD are not as familiar to the public.

“People often say, ‘You’re not blind. How come you have a service dog?’” said Kathie Ball, a trainer with A Veteran’s Best Friend. “Sometimes they’re hesitant to let the dogs in. Some people carry a copy of the law regarding service dogs with them in case it’s hard to explain to a hotel or restaurant that the dog is allowed.”

Service dogs go through weeks of training before passing a public-access test, including learning to remain calm and near their owner even in the most busy situation.

When her red vest is on, Molly stays by Arnold’s side every minute, never barking or tugging at her leash. But as soon as the vest comes off, Molly knows she’s on a break and can run around and play and act like any other dog.

Each veteran in the program takes his or her dog home between sessions to continue training and to bond. But because some veterans aren’t physically able to keep up with the demand of exercising a young dog, Sporer and his team are getting kids ages 12-19 from area churches involved.

“The kids volunteer to help train the dogs, give them baths and walks,” Sporer said. “If they stick with the program, by the end, they’ll know how to train a service dog.”

The youth program currently has four people working with the dogs. Each youth volunteer is paired with a specific dog and veteran to work with. To get involved, the volunteer must have four sponsors pledge $25 a month for 15 months.

“It’s a great way for them to learn not only about the dogs, but how to honor a veteran,” Sporer said.

When the veterans first started meeting to train their dogs last year, there was a sense of apprehension. After suffering from PTSD for so long, Arnold said, many of the veterans wondered if anything could help them.

“The wounds that are usually not ever seen, but often the greatest, are the emotional wounds inflicted by situations that occur in war,” Arnold said. “Most of us don’t come home the same person as when we left.”

Arnold and Ball said they’ve both already noticed a change in the veterans participating in the group. There are more smiles, more openness and many more trips out into the community. It’s a sense of independence that some veterans have not felt in years.

“PTSD dogs are going to save lives,” Arnold said. “The dog makes you focus on something other than your pain. I’m very proud to be on the ground floor of this program.”

More information on A Veteran’s Best Friend, including how to donate, can be found at servicedog4ptsd.org or by calling (501) 422-8310.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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