WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 1, 2014) – Some veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have special buddies to rely on — specially trained Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers.
These dogs were bred to retrieve waterfowl and game birds for hunters, and that instinct suits them well to retrieve things for veterans, said Miami Phillips, a volunteer with paws4vets, a nonprofit that provides these dogs to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD.
Phillips was at a Combined Federal Campaign drive at the Pentagon last week promoting paws4vets, one of many organizations relying on CFC.
Paws4vets has 86 psychiatric service dogs that are helping veterans with PTSD, Phillips said. They are specially bred and trained in Wilmington, N.C., and at seven state prisons in West Virginia. At the prisons, inmates themselves train the dogs.
Each dog gets a lot of training, he said. After about two years, the dog is ready. If the veteran is missing limbs, the dog is trained to push elevator buttons and turn on and off light switches.
The dog can even fetch a beverage from the refrigerator, Phillips said, explaining that a veteran without arms can hold a laser pointer in his teeth and point it at the fridge, which the dog will open. He then points it at the can or bottle.
But retrieving things, pushing buttons and flipping switches are just part of the training.
Since they’re psychiatric service dogs, they get additional training on helping veterans with severe cases of PTSD.
These cases, which can come from traumatic brain injury, combat stress or sexual assault, are so severe, that when veterans get a panic attack, they sometimes curl up on the floor in a fetal position and start crying, he said.
“If you’ve ever been late for a flight or a date, you’ve probably had a mild panic attack,” he said. “Now, multiply that by 100 and you’ll begin to see what these vets experience.”
The dogs are trained to recognize the onset of a panic attack. When they alert to this, they begin tapping the vet on the leg with their paw, he explained. The tapping sends a message to the vet from the dog: “pay attention to me,” not to whatever you’re thinking or feeling.
If that doesn’t work, he said the dogs are trained to go and find someone to help the vet.
The dogs even sleep with the vets, he said. If the veterans experience a horrible nightmare, the dogs are trained to wake them up.
Phillips brought along his own psychiatric service dog, Goose. The dog, half lab, half Australian shepherd, is a demonstration dog that travels with him to events like this all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Goose is so well disciplined that Phillips placed a yummy dog biscuit on his nose and paw and the salivating pooch didn’t move until he was given the command to eat.
This is actually an important thing to learn, he said. If the dog goes with a vet to a restaurant, you wouldn’t want the dog to jump up on the buffet counter and savage the food. The dog has to show discipline.
The biscuit trick resulted in a small crowd of admirers, but Phillips wasn’t finished.
He then pulled out a set of reading cards. When “wave” was shown, Goose waved. “Sit,” “roll,” and so on, produced the desired behavior.
Phillips travels with his wife to three to five paws4vets events with his wife and Goose in their sailboat, plying the Intracoastal Waterway and inland rivers. This week, they’re sailing to a marathon event in the Florida Keys.
CFC is very important to paws4vets, he said. About 25 percent of the charity’s money comes from CFC donations. The overhead of paws4pets is less than five percent, he said, meaning that nearly all of the money goes right into directly helping veterans and training the dogs.
The training for veterans is pretty intense as well, he said. All have to come to the training center to train and pick up their dogs. Since many are afraid to leave the perceived safety of their homes, volunteers have to fly or drive many of them to the site.
Once they get to the site, they don’t get to choose their dog, he said. The dogs choose them. Trainers look to see the body language in the dogs and in the vets and see which veteran the dog goes up to and bonds with.