At your service: the dogs who make lives better

War changes people. It can change people down to their very core. War can be overwhelming and impactful… it’s impossible to avoid an indelible mark. Men and women return home from war, but the war follows them home. It’s a story that’s all too common: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can take control over veterans’ daily lives. It’s like a dark passenger lingering within that stops them from living fully and freely. The brave people who choose to serve and protect this country shouldn’t have to feel like they’re just scraping by, surviving each passing day.

Enter service dogs… For many veterans, service dogs can help build the coping skills necessary to battle the effects of PTSD and TBI. These dogs provide support and companionship that can help mitigate the presence of symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, paranoia, anger, and social anxiety. Feeling safe should never be a luxury… it should be a basic human right.

A service dog is a type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people mitigate many different types of disabilities. They can be trained to work with individuals who have visual or hearing impairments, use power or manual wheelchairs, have balance issues, have various types of autism, need seizure alert or response, need to be alerted to other medical issues like low blood sugar, or have psychiatric diagnosis.

That’s the academic definition of a service dog, but what they do and what they become to a partner is so far beyond what we can really put into words. Service dogs come into someone’s life when they are in an hour of great need. They are a full glass when you are empty. They are courage where you’re scared. They are holding you up when you feel weak. They are the sidekick who helps to protect you and keep the demons at bay. They are the missing piece that allows you to be the best version of yourself.

This is Rory and Cooper. Cooper is Rory’s guardian angel canine who helped give him a new lease on life when he didn’t know where to turn. Rory suffered from PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. He was stationed in the Sunni Triangle, and his base was hit by 139 mortars in 120 days… The gut-wrenching fear that spilled over into his personal life became too much to bare. It got so bad for Rory that he didn’t know if he could continue living. He wanted to be a better father and husband. He wanted to work to support his family, but the crippling anxiety and post-traumatic stress made it impossible for him to work.

Rory had reached out for support, and the voice that answered belonged to Rachelle, a former Chive Charities recipient of a service dog grant. She, too, had dealt with similar demons. She, too, had felt there was no escape from her despair. When all seemed lost, Rachelle decided to not rob herself of a second chance, and ended up with a new best friend, one who saved her life. Her name is Nala (that’s Rachelle and Nala above)!

After applying for a grant from Chive Charities, our Green Ribbon Fund covered the cost of Cooper, a new companion – a companion who was able to give Rory the support he needed to lead a happy, more peaceful life. As Rory said: “They say having an animal can add years to your life… I’m looking forward to all the time I can get.”

Veterans with PTSD constantly struggle with triggers. Their memories can be triggered by sights, sounds, smells or even feelings that they experience. These triggers can bring back memories of the trauma and cause intense emotional and physical reactions, like raised heart rate, sweating and muscle tension. A service dog is that partner in crime who can help vets navigate the world to ease triggers. They act as a counterbalance when their owner is feeling unstable, reminding them everything’s going to be alright.

These dogs go through highly specialized training to be the most effective companion possible. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all timeline for training a service dog, but service dog programs will have training plans specific to each dog. In general, adult dogs will undergo specific training for 1-2 hours a day for about 6 months (sometimes more) before they are matched with their owner.

Service dogs are trained to pick things up, guide an individual with visual impairment, or help someone who falls or loses balance easily. For example, a service dog can help a blind person walk down the street, or get dangerous things out of the way when someone is having a seizure.

Though service dogs are trained to help with a variety of issues, PTSD is the most common. Somewhere between 11-20% of U.S. veterans experience post-traumatic stress. It’s a staggering figure as there are over 20 million veterans in the U.S. It’s an amazing gift that these dogs have the ability to help assuage their pain.

One of our Chive Charities grant recipients, Kate, described PTSD as: “A silent, cunning, and oppressive killing force that robs you of your sanity, and your constant fight for survival is an act of sheer courage that leaves you mentally depleted, physically exhausted, and feeling so completely alone and questioning why you chose to come home or choose to live.”

Kate was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, where she went to support the fighting troops in war zones, working at the exchange stores. The way she speaks about her service dog, Buckshot (awesome name), shows how the importance of these dogs cannot be understated. Buckshot is her counterbalance:

“He is confident and relaxed when I cannot be; absorbs anxiety and depression by leaning in close and reminding me he’s here and I’m present in the moment; watches my back and blocks when someone approaches; quiets my nightmares by laying his head on my chest. He is the barrier that allows me to be confident rather than small.”

“Every once in a while, a dog enters your life and saves it.”

theCHIVE and CW’s Valor have teamed up to help Kenneth, a Vietnam vet, get one of these amazing animals to make his life better. Keep an eye out for his story next week!

Valor is inspired by our military’s heroes, and follows an elite unit of helicopter pilots trained to perform clandestine international and domestic missions. Be sure to check out the series premiere of Valor October 9th, Monday at 9/8c, only on The CW.

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