The Washington Post has a story about a new program to assist two groups of wounded veterans, “Vets with PTSD train dogs to help comrades“:
… The program trains Labradors and golden retrievers – including many offspring of Yount’s dog Gabe – as lifelong service dogs and companions for veterans who use wheelchairs. But for their first two years of life, these dogs spread their love around in another way. They are trained by veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. For many of these psychologically damaged warriors, this human-canine connection provides them with emotional sustenance, a mission and important lessons in patience that help them get on with their lives.
“It was challenging, and it tested my patience, but it taught me to have patience again, and that was something I had really lost because of PTSD,” said former Army reconnaisance officer Amanda Heidenreiter, 26, of Columbia, of her experience training Owen, a golden retriever. She had returned from Iraq terrified of crowds and children, and “Owen helped me relax, calm my anger.”
The vets who train the dogs spend several months with them, sometimes longer, and letting go can be difficult. Yount said that some experience sleep problems after their dogs go, but “processing that sense of loss in saying goodbye to their dog has been a valuable gateway to processing other loss issues that have been hampering their recovery. ”
And it’s terribly important for veterans to feel they are continuing a mission that held them together through the violence and stress of war. “PTSD carries a stigma, that you’re broken and wounded,” said Yount, “And many guys have guilt for not still being in the fight. The idea of Paws for Purple Hearts is you can be part of the war effort while you’re getting treatment.”
This is where the dual benefits of the program are apparent. The vets are working on behalf of a wheelchair-using vet, but are learning – or relearning – the emotional skills needed to manage a dog that will help them function in a world of normal human feelings and interactions.
“The training of a dog requires you to emote,” Yount says. “That’s hard for a guy with PTSD who’s emotionally numb. But if you tell them it’s necessary to train this dog to help a fellow vet, there’s motivation. First, they have to sound happy. It’s fake. But there’s a concept that says, ‘Fake it until you make it.’ Within a few days, it sounds more and more sincere. Pretending to sound happy actually impacts your feeling of happiness.”
Heidenreiter, the former reconnaisance officer, said training a golden retriever named Owen forced her to go into malls, restaurants and stores so that the dog would be a good companion for a physically disabled veteran. Doing so terrified her at first, but eventually she learned to relax…
There’s also a slide show, which starts with Yount explaining Gabe’s expert qualifications: “He will train you to pet him.”