Service dogs help combat veterans cope

Apr 24, 2012

Thousands of veterans have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  Nightmares or flashbacks, angry outbursts, and hyper vigilance are common symptoms. In addition, many veterans also have to learn to live with physical injuries.  A Des Moines-based not-for-profit called Paws and Effect is helping some Iowa veterans live better lives.

Sgt. Wade Baker’s solid physique and square jaw contrast nicely with the dark, lithe form of Honor, the young psychiatric service dog at his side.

For the past 18 months, the slender black lab has been trained not only to help those with limited movement, but also to help mitigate PTSD.  Honor graduated a month ago and was given to Baker, a combat veteran of the Gulf War.  

Once Baker got out of the military, he says his PTSD symptoms became much worse.

"I turned to drugs, I even turned to pornography, just any vice I could find that would keep the endorphins flowing in my brain, to shut me down when I wanted to shut down, to turn on when I wanted to turn on," Baker says.

Baker eventually reached a point he describes as "two moves from checkmate."

"I was gonna loose my family, was gonna loose my job, the family that I did have, my parents and my sister, unfortunately didn’t understand, they were worn out and tired of trying to care really," he says. "I’d alienated everybody. And the easiest way out and the fastest way out was suicide. "

After his suicide attempt, Baker finally got the treatment he needed at the VA Center in Iowa City.

He says receiving Honor a few weeks ago has made a huge difference.  Even though dogs like Honor are trained to retrieve, open and close doors, and turn lights on and off, they also commonly provide veterans emotional and therapeutic support.

Baker says Honor is like is a buddy in his unit who looks out for him, even when he’s asleep.  

"I was having a nightmare, a flashback. And I woke up with honor standing on my chest licking my face," he recalls. "It’s calming me down. I realize, I know what he did, I know what happened now.

"He was waking me up and he was stopping the nightmare for me."

The Executive Director of Paws & Effect, Nicole Shumate, says the dogs are trained in other ways to help sufferers of PTSD.  For instance, in a public place when someone is standing too close, causing anxiety, the service dog will stand perpendicular in front of that person to create more distance.

"The dogs will watch behind them and if somebody is approaching, the dog will wag their tails so that the recipient can see that somebody might be coming up behind them," Shumate says. "So they don’t always feel obligated to check behind them or be worried about what is happening behind them.

"They kinda have another set of eyes."

Baker recalls a time at Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines when the crowds started to get to him. Honor immediately sensed his human companion was becoming anxious, and took action.

"Then he launched himself up into my lap, and pushed me against the wall, and he looked half back at me and he yawned," Baker says. "That’s one of the dog’s signals to just calm down. And it clicked in my head and I started laughing, who’s training who? He knows what he was doing and I’m not even sure what he was doing up until that point in time."

Shumate says we don’t know everything dogs can do.  

"I think the last 20 years we’ve really seen the practical application of using dogs in healthy ways skyrocket," she says. "There are days you just hope the possibilities are infinite."

The psychiatric service dogs are free to selected veterans. But Honor and each of his eight fellow canine graduates in this first Paws & Effect class costs up to $2,500 in supplies, care and training.   

Three more litters are in the works for placement late this year and early in 2013.