A note from St. John: Therapy dogs as use in treatment for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD) has been a keen interest of mine for many years. In the following column you will read a first-hand account of what these dogs do, not only for veterans, but for civilians living with PTSD. Thank you, Tim, for sharing. Readers: spread the word that relief is out there in the form of our four-legged friends…please.
My wife and I both suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Hers stems from horrific abuse and mine from combat tours and years as a firefighter on a rescue squad.
The thing about PTSD is sometimes you can be managing just fine, then all of the sudden something triggers an anxiety reaction. Suddenly your adrenalin is pumping. You’re nervous, panicking. Your fight or flight mechanism kicks in and you’re not coping well.
Anything can set the trigger off. Over time, you start to recognize some triggers. It can be a sound, a smell, a memory, or a sight. Others sneak up on you or you can’t avoid. To avoid them means locking yourself in the house from the world.
We have 2 dogs that have graduated and been certified Therapy Dogs. Penelope is a 10 pound half long haired Chihuahua and half some sort of Terrier (daddy was a cad, snuck in and didn’t leave his name). Jewel is a 4 pound long haired Chihuahua. They are very small but huge in the job they do for us. We chose 2 very small dogs because they can go places less noticeably than large dogs. They are less threatening to other people and they have a longer life span than larger breeds.
So, what do these mini mighty dogs do for us? I will speak for myself. One of my triggers is crowds…like noise in a crowded Wal Mart with loud kids running around. The whole thing becomes a wall of chaos noise and overwhelms me. I just want to fight my way outside to freedom. Penelope will put her head and shoulder against me and push hard to get my attention. When I look at her she’ll put her ears back and give me a look with her eyes that she’s worried about me. If people push in close to me she’ll turn and growl at the offending people to warn them to stay away. She does not ever bite and never shows her teeth. It’s just a low growl “Keep back”. Then she’ll jump against my leg for me to pick her up. When I pick her up she snuggles up to my chest and will stand in my arms and snuggle against my neck. She causes me to focus on her and her affection to me and not the trigger. My heart rate drops, my breathing slows and I calm down. Jewel will do similar but she will stand up on her back legs and dance around in front of you or throw her front paws on your leg. When you pick her up she’ll snuggle up to your neck and lick your neck then snuggle her head again to your neck. She picks up on the signal or triggers before the panic sets in and reacts before your PTSD gets going… often times, heading off the attack or lessoning the onset. They will not take no for an answer and will insist on caring for us. The dogs allow us the freedom of the everyday world. Without them I wouldn’t be able make my day -o-day life.
So why do dogs need to be certified as Therapy Dogs?
Therapy Dogs are the same under the American Disabilities Act (ADA) as a Service Animal. They are covered by the ADA and can legally go anywhere a Service Animal can.
We take our dogs everywhere; to restaurants, doctors’ offices, retail stores, movie theaters, and hospitals. They travel with us and love to ride on our motorcycles (our other therapy). We never know when in public something will trigger our PTSD.
A side benefit is once they are certified they can also go to Nursing Homes and as therapy dogs bring joy to the residents. The girls go from room to room to visit each resident and make them smile for a few minutes. We let them off their leashes and they just know to go down the hall and visit every room. You should see the faces of the residents light up when the girls trot into their room to see them. Because they are small they can easily be put onto the bed or on the lap of a person in a wheel chair so they can go love on the person. It’s amazing what 5 minutes of love does for the residents. The dogs seem to instinctively know what each person needs and how to give it to them.
Caring for the dogs and the unconditional love they give us makes us better people.