SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Ivanhoe Newswire) - Constant gunfire, mayhem, and death. For troops who saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the dust settles the nerves don't always follow. While the battlefield is causing tens of thousands of physical injuries, it's also resulted in an overwhelming number of psychological scars. So are animals the answer to treat veterans with PTSD?
War is hell.
"When I was in Afghanistan I took five direct IED blasts," Sgt. Michael Bossio told Ivanhoe.
"I, ah, lost some very good friends over there. I heard him die over the radio," Evan Hudec told Ivanhoe.
"We drove over a 250 pound IED," Corporal Anthony Michael Owens told Ivanhoe.
Coming home can be hell too.
"My mom called my company commander and said this is not my son," Hudec said.
"I really get overwhelmed really easy," Sgt. Bossio explained.
"I just explode," Vietnam Vet, Willie Calhoun told Ivanhoe.
All of these men have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Brought on by their time at war, it can lead to things like trouble sleeping, depression, anger, and anxiety.
"I had to be by the door and I had to know where all my exits were," Sgt. Bossio said.
"I have gone off and left carts full of groceries and just walked out. I can't take anymore," Calhoun stated.
The Department of Veterans' Affairs reports in 2012, more than half-a-million veterans were treated for PTSD. Close to 120,000 served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many are prescribed drugs like Zoloft or Paxil.
However, Sgt. Michael Bossio said Harley is the best medicine.
"He helps ease my anxiety when, when we're out in public," Sgt. Bossio said.
He's an accredited PTSD service dog.
Today, other dogs of all shapes and sizes are trying to earn their vests through the Train A Dog Save A Warrior Program.
Corporal Anthony Michael Owens credits Smokey for helping him.
"He has been amazing for me," Owens said.
Ryan Miller feels the same about Nitro.
"More than anything, he really just helps me to be able to function in society again," Ryan Miller told Ivanhoe.
Vietnam Vet Willie Calhoun said before he had Chelsie he was on high doses of four PTSD drugs. With her, he's down to one.
"For the first time in about 25 years I went into the theater with my family instead of sitting out in the car," Calhoun said.
So why do the dogs make such a difference for the vets? The truth is the research is severely lacking.
"It's faith based evidence and the military and the government don't like faith based evidence," program director for TADSAW, Bart Sherwood, told Ivanhoe.
The VA started a first of its kind study on PTSD service dogs, but enrollment was suspended last year. A spokesman tells us the VA "is working to develop a new plan to carry out this research, potentially in multiple locations." Until the evidence is confirmed by science, the VA will not reimburse vets specifically with mental conditions like PTSD for their service dog's veterinary care, travel expenses, or anything else.
Even without scientific proof, the impact of the pups is clear to these vets as they continue to fight the war within themselves.
"I've got a battle buddy with me," Hudec explained.
"It's good to be out and about," Calhoun concluded.
The American Humane Society and US senator Charles Schumer of New York are urging the government to reimburse vets with PTSD for service dog-related costs. Meanwhile, Train a Dog Save a Warrior is one of many PTSD service dog organizations across the US. Officials said in many cases they can train a vet's existing family dog to be a service animal, as long as it has the right temperament. It also trains rescued dogs for the program. For more information go to: http://tadsaw.org.
BACKGROUND: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a traumatic event. During the event, an individual may feel that their life is threatened or others' lives are in danger. After the event occurs, the individual may feel confused, angry, and scared. If the feelings don't go away or get worse, they probably have PTSD. These events often include: child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attacks, serious accidents, natural disasters, sexual or physical assault, or combat and military exposure. (Source: www.brainlinemilitary.org) The direct cause of PTSD is unknown, but psychological, genetic, social, and physical factors are involved. PTSD changes the body's response to stress by affecting the stress hormones and chemicals that carry information between the nerves. It is unclear as to why PTSD occurs in some people but not others. (Source: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
SYMPTOMS: PTSD symptoms fall into three main categories: 1. Avoidance: emotional "numbing," feeling detached, being unable to remember aspects of the trauma, having a lack of interest in normal activities, and the feeling of not having a future. 2. "Reliving" the event: flashback episodes, repeated nightmares of the event, repeated upsetting memories of the event, and strong, uncomfortable reactions to situations that is a reminder of the event. 3. Arousal: difficulty concentrating, having an exaggerated response to things that are startling, feeling more aware (hypervigilance), feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger, and having trouble falling and staying asleep. (Source: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
For further information regarding PTSD go to the National Center for PTSD: http://ptsd.va.gov.
NEW ADVANCES: The Department of Veterans' Affairs reports that in 2012, more than 500 thousand veterans were treated for PTSD. PTSD is rarely cured and can vary between wounded warriors. An alternative to support groups and staying medicated comes from an organization called Train a Dog Save a Warrior (TADSAW). They offer service dogs to help combat the physical, behavioral, and emotional symptoms of PTSD. TADSAW Service Dogs have been proven useful for alleviating symptoms such as: anxiety, fear, panic, irritability, depression, withdrawal, hyper-vigilance, loss of trust, isolation, nightmares, reoccurring flashbacks, phobias of crowds, phobias of e-mail, phobias of phones, phobias of stores and buildings, insomnia, fatigue, migraines, paranoia, sleepwalking, suicidal thoughts, suspicion, poor self-esteem, and anti-social behavior. If the applicant does not have a personal dog, TADSAW will choose one from a rescue shelter. There is no charge for the dog. All vaccinations are current, dog food, water bowls, leash and collar, bedding, and dog food are all provided when the dog is given to the applicant. If any health issues arise during the training, TADSAW takes care of the bills. However, if the dog was rescued by the applicant prior to TADSAW, then the applicant is considered the owner of the dog, and it would be treated similarly as a personal dog.
A short answer as to how a dog helps a warrior with PTSD is that petting a dog decreases release of cortisol and increases the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream. The decrease in cortisol can lower blood pressure and cause a sense of relaxation. The increase in oxytocin, which is the same chemical that is released when a mother nurses her baby, will facilitate a sense of security and well-being. For example, a female warrior with PTSD can have sleep disorders and often awakens to find herself barricaded in a closet with a knife. With a TADSAW Service Dog, she is able to sleep. Just by having the dog around allow the warrior to trust the dog to assess the safety of their surroundings. Training of the dog is extensive and costly, but at no charge to the warrior. Training lasts three to four months. Once training is completed and the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizenship classification is awarded to the team, and after intensive training to meet the specific needs of the specific warrior, the dog will be eligible for service dog designation, according to the American Disabilities Act. The difference between service animals and therapy animals is that service animals are legally defined and trained to meet the disability-related needs of the handler and are not considered pets. Therapy animals are not legally defined by federal law, but some states have laws to define therapy animals. Therapy animals are not limited to working with people who have disabilities. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in public places that have "no pets" policies. (Source: www.tadsaw.org) For more information on PTSD service dogs go to: http://tadsaw.org. There are other organizations who off service dogs for vets. For example, one non-profit organization called Barn Yard Ventures donates dogs for vets in a wheelchair. For further information visit: http://barnyardventures.org/.
Bart Sherwood, Co-founder, Executive Director/President of the Train a Dog Save a Warrior Program, TADSAW, talks about therapy dogs for PTSD veterans.
What is it like for these guys when they come back?
Bart Sherwood: They come back giving up their uniform, their weapon, and they give up their battle buddy that has been with them through the whole deployment. Now they don't have a battle buddy who had their back. It is not their family or their friends. Basically they are alone. The dog becomes their new battle buddy and they are comfortable with them. The dog increases their comfort zone. They are able to go out to dinner and sit anywhere they want. They can go shopping. They can act like normal healthy individuals that never went to war. Otherwise, they are basically alone from the time they get home until they get treatment or get a dog.
What have you seen? When did this program start?
Bart Sherwood: This program started in August of 2010 when we were at the Fort Sam Houston Warrior and Family Support Center. We had a therapy dog over there that had been a reading dog for a little girl. The little girl sat down next to the dog and was saying, "Aww, Kelsey, you are my reading dog." She went from a second grade reading level to a fifth grade reading level in a year. Her father walked up and said "Gee, I wish my dog could do that." I looked up to him and said "Train a Dog, Save a Warrior." It is like chocolate and peanut butter making a candy bar. He was our first warrior in the program and part of our first team that graduated. It has been nonstop ever since. It has been a rocket ship ride.
How many dogs have gone through the program?
Bart Sherwood: Total, I think we have about maybe about 110 dogs in the program, in training. So far, we now have 79 certified teams out there. That is 79 different communities that now are affected by persons getting back into their quality of life. They are back to interacting again and that is quite unusual because most service organizations only put out about between 5 and 10 dogs a year. In 2 and 1/2 years, we have got 79 as a program. So, it is really unbelievable.
Is it just here in San Antonio?
Bart Sherwood: No, it is not just in San Antonio. We have dogs in training from Puerto Rico to Alaska; from California to Maine; from Minnesota to South Texas; and we have teams in Hawaii that are going to start training.
Some of the dogs are rescue dogs as well?
Bart Sherwood: Some of the dogs are rescue dogs. If a warrior or veteran has their own dog, we try to utilize it because of the human/animal bond that has already been established as long as there are no issues. As long as there are no aggression issues so the dog can be out in public. You need a really super obedient dog that is out in public. The other things can be taught to them; the skills, the tasks, but obedience is what is really drilled into them so that way they don't misbehave for any reason at all.
I talked to 5 or 6 guys who all said this has saved their lives. One said it helped him lower medication. Another said it makes him not want to go get medication for his problems. Another guy said it got rid of his anxiety. Why have there not been any studies?
Bart Sherwood: It works because it is faith based evidence. The military and the government don't like faith based evidence of things that work. They want to see true, hard, cold facts; like drug studies which are scientific, but still are faith based because they test normal healthy individuals on drugs so we really don't know who the drugs work except it may make some people better or it may make some people worse. Dogs will help some. It may not help everybody. However, the prescriptions that are being dispensed in a shotgun method of therapy that have black-box warnings definitely are causing more suicides that are going on. If the drugs were working, suicides would be decreasing; instead they are increasing at an alarming rate. When we started this in 2010 and 2011, results showed 18 suicides a day total including veterans and active duty. In 2012, we are up to over 20 a day. A veteran commits suicide 1 every 80 minutes. Two active duty warriors are dying a day throughout the country. Medicine and therapy aren't working. We need to say, hey, we got to try something. The dog may help and it may not, but we know it has helped 5 individuals that you talked to today that won't think about suicide because they live for their dog and now their families. So, I think that is what we have to do is worry about the statistics. How can we lower them? How can we change them? We are having a study performed by a doctoral student from a local university to study the effects of what the dog does; what their lifestyle was before they got the dog before they got the program; how it changed after the dog got in training; how is it 6 months after you have been certified; a year after certified; is there money being saved by the government; have we decreased the medication costs; have we decreased the patient visits to the VA? By taking your dog out to walk on a daily basis, you are going to be exercising more. So, there are a lot of positive things about having a dog. Our training method is that the warrior trains with the dog from start to finish. They don't get a finished product. They become a dog handler and it seems to be working.
Have you talked to the military about this?
Bart Sherwood: I have been in contact with the military, but it is still faith based. They just don't understand, it's like fighting the personnel. If you don't keep them training, they are going to get rusty. They are not going to be excellent fighters out there. Well, the same thing with a service dog and service dog training. They have got to be; have that interaction going out, or being involved to maintain that acuity of being sharp; being a sharp individual and obeying everybody.
I went to a service dog summit on May 1 in Washington, D.C. at the Pentagon. I was invited up there as a participant. The opening statement by the Colonel that was running the meeting was that on orders from General Odinaro, General of the Army, Lieutenant General Horoho who is the Army Surgeon General, that any warrior that was being med-boarded out, should be able to get a dog and start training with their service dog so that way by the time they were discharged and out of the military, they would have a fully trained service dog. Ever since that order, it has gone backwards. Nobody wants to bring these dogs in. Suicide rates have gone up. So, even the company commanders are not listening. The military spends for a warrior in a treatment, about $1500 a day. There was an AMED document that said if you send these people basically to a behavioral specialist for treatment; that is a behavioral specialist. Now, you have to go through a multidisciplinary team that is going to evaluate whether you really need a dog or not and these people are not trained psychologists. They have maybe a PA in something like nursing or they are a company commander that has a BA in Liberal Arts and now is a Lieutenant Colonel. He is going to change the orders from a specialist and they spend in the neighborhood of $60,000 for a person to go to a clinic and is saying, "It is okay to have a service dog for your PTSD," but now you come back home to your base and your company commander says well, I don't authorize a dog. So, why spend $60,000 on a warrior to just go ahead and say no after a behavioral specialist has said I think this person would do better with a dog. Medication is not working. The therapy sessions are okay, but this will help him more. The war is here. Company commanders' discretionary counter overrides are a wartime situation. If somebody is sick and you are out fighting a battle; he can override a doctor's orders and say we need your help out here. The battle here is for the treatment, and that is the fight we need to be winning. The military for some reason does not want to give up that fight. We are making a difference one person, one dog, one family, one community at a time.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:
Bart Sherwood Co-founder and Executive Director/President Train a Dog, Save a Warrior Program (210) 643-2901 firstname.lastname@example.org
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