Let me tell you a little about my dog Dixie.
Dixie is a German Shepard/Coon hound mix that we adopted from an animal shelter in 1998. Dixie soon became a member of our family which included my husband (who suffers from PTSD) our other dog Simba a Chow-Chow/North Timberland wolf mix and of course myself. Both Simba and Dixie received training from a military K-9 handler while we were living in Germany. The wonderful part of this training was that we were able to implement the training in a variety of settings. Because Germans allow dogs in restaurants, public transportation and most stores our dogs were by default receiving training to become service dogs. Both Simba and Dixie took to their training very well, and we often joked that we’d love to make Simba a service dog.
Simba was (and I use the past tense because we recently had to put him to sleep) a very gregarious ball of fluff that loved people and especially loved working with people. My goal before his health deteriorated was to train him specifically for nursing home visits and visits to hospital wards. This goal was never realized and soon became a thought in the back of my mind as life in the military took us down a different path. I had never once considered using Dixie for the task of therapy dog because her personality was much more reserved to the point she wouldn’t allow many people to even pet her. With Simba’s passing in July of this year we were presented with two major issues. Both of which would soon be solved with some training, some patience and a new way of looking at an old dog’s tricks.
The first issue was that Dixie having literally grown up with Simba as her constant companion began to grieve that loss intently. She couldn’t be left alone at the house, she stopped eating and became more and more clingy than she had ever been before. The second issue was that for the first time my husband was beginning a very intense form of PTSD therapy that was causing him a lot of anxiety. This caused even more stress on top of worrying how to train Dixie to tolerate being away from her pack. I began to wish there was some way to have Dixie with us at all times and to help my husband’s PTSD. While we faced the dilemma of losing one dog and worrying over the plight of our remaining dog my husband was introduced to the benefits of PTSD service dogs. There are several organizations that train puppies to become PTSD service dogs. We contemplated the idea of introducing a new dog into our pack as a way to help Dixie cope with losing Simba. But we were not ready to replace Simba, it wasn’t until we researched the criteria more carefully that we soon realized that Dixie was qualified to work as a PTSD service dog. With a little extra training she easily fit the mold of PTSD service dog. The more we worked with her the more aptly she began to take to her new role.
PTSD service dogs are expected to provide the following services to veterans with PTSD;
- Accompany the veteran into stores, restaurants, buses, trains, air planes, work and any other public places that the vet may need to go.
- Allow the veteran to remain calm by preventing people from crowding around him in public places by placing his or her self in front the vet thus providing a comfortable space for the vet.
- Watching behind the veteran by calmly preventing anyone by rushing up behind him and surprising him. (The dog is never aggressive towards people but just provides a barrier and alerts the vet to people who may be approaching from behind).
- Provide a reassuring presence for the vet by anticipating his needs both at home and outside in public.
What we soon began noticing was that Dixie was a natural. She even took on the behavior of “nudging” in which a service dog can sense the anxiety of the handler (such as a flashback or hyper vigilance that leaves the veteran vulnerable) and bring them back to reality by physically “nudging” them. “Nudging” is what a dog may naturally do for attention, by physically touching a veteran with PTSD the tactile sense of a warm dog can often bring them back to the present moment by lowering blood pressure and reducing levels of seratonin and adrenaline. This behavior can also be used as a way for a veteran who is having an anxiety issue to leave a situation. For example if the veteran is feeling anxious and the dog starts nudging or in some cases whining to get their attention, the veteran can use the dog as an excuse to leave- thus saving them from the embarrassment of having a flashback in front of a boss or stranger. Plus the act of walking the dog in a public place can give a veteran social confidence working with the dog as a team member and pull them out of their isolation. Many veterans with PTSD service dogs report that the calming effect of their dogs have literally saved their lives.
We’ve both been working with Dixie for the last month or so in re-training her for her new role. Because my husband and I both suffer from PTSD, we felt it was appropriate that we should both use her solving the dilemma of not being able to leave her home alone. The only problem we’ve faced in this training is the general public. Not many people seem to grasp the concept of a Service Dog’s role to someone with PTSD. And although we’re quick to educate them when asked, it’s the strangers or their children who come up to Dixie while she’s wearing her Service Dog vest and distract her with unsolicited attention I’d truly like to educate. If I had a forum in which I could take every person who has come up to pet Dixie without asking, or who asks rude questions about my husband’s or my condition and why we need a Service Dog- here’s what I’d tell them.
“I am not handicapped, Dixie is a Medical Service Dog, and if I don’t want to tell you what medical condition she alerts to- I don’t have to, especially when you’re being rude. A Service Dog is not a pet, it is a working dog. Dixie’s role is to work on keeping my husband safe, balanced and focused on daily tasks, not to be there for your personal amusement. I certainly would not take your child from their stroller or carrier and start bouncing them around because they’re so darn cute, in most places I’d be arrested for that behavior. So what makes you believe it’s okay to do the same? It is not okay for you to come up and pet a Service Dog without permission, and frankly you shouldn’t even ask to pet a dog in service. Even a well trained dog like Dixie can be distracted by your attention and then force me to have to refocus her because you have no boundaries. And your lack of boundaries is exactly the function she is performing for my husband who has issues with people and boundaries. So the next time you see a dog in service… ask yourself- is it really that important that I touch this dog, or is it more important that I acknowledge this dog has a very important job to do, and allow it to perform it’s job without distraction?”
I for one hope your answer will be it’s more important to allow the dog to perform it’s job.
for more information about PTSD Service Dogs visit these websites;