Service Dogs Help Veterans Heal Invisible Wounds

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For about two months, former Navy SEAL Frank Gordon and his dog Casey have been in intensive training.

Casey is training to become a qualified service dog and is training Gordon to use him to cope with what doctors have diagnosed as severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"He gets me on a schedule," said Gordon. "I used to stay up until two. Now I'm so tired. I got to bed at 9 o'clock," he said. 

And that alone is a huge step for Gordon, who says he feels trapped in the real life nightmares he lived during his military service. 

"You brag about it. You have this machismo, but then when everything settles down you remember those faces. You remember those things that you did, and sometimes you become ashamed," he said. "He was trying to kill you and I was trying to kill him. But I have a family and so does he, and I took his life."

The thought of taking another life almost led him to take his own. 

"I found myself on a desolate road with a foul in the teeth, 12 gauge shotgun with collapsible stock shoved into my mouth, and it had maybe a five pound trigger pull on it, and I had maybe about two pounds," said Gordon. 

Living with invisible wounds for more than 30 years, now he’s got Casey, a brand new solution to a problem as old as war.

"Just the pain of what I've endured in the past. I don't now. These dogs are literally like medicine," said Gordon.

Casey and about 50 other dogs at Wags 4 Warriors, a non-profit organization in Northeast Ohio, are trained to sense when their veteran becomes anxious, and pull them out of flashbacks or panic attacks.

That’s what dog Sophie was doing as she sat next to her owner and Wags 4 Warriors co-founder Frank Delorenzo. As we talked to Delorenzo, Sophie tried to calm his nerves. 

"My anxiety levels, I mean I can feel it. I'm starting to sweat a little," said Delorenzo, a 13 year Army veteran who suffers from PTSD. "She's either trying to pull me out of the situation and get me out and you know, to cool off or she's trying to take my focus down off of you to her."

Sophie reminds Delorenzo to take his medication, pulls him out of crowded areas and wakes him up from nightmares.

He's able to have a panic attack at any moment, as he his reminded of the noises, smells and sights of war. 

"You're in complete panic," he explained. "I'm a grown man. I've served 13 years in the Army. I shouldn't be like this." 

More than 2 million U.S. troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, and one in five of those veterans are likely to be afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.   

Since October of last year, Delorenzo and his wife Jen have been training and providing service dogs to these veterans free of charge. They come from all over the Ohio, and even from neighboring states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

"It's healing for me. I get to see the benefit of a service dog with another member. It's fun to do, you know to be around my own every day," said Delorenzo. 

Delorenzo and his wife hold training classes for the service dogs and veterans between three and four days each week. 

"It’s easier to work with the dogs than, than to tell the veterans what to do. With our PTSD and [traumatic brain injuries], a lot of times we forget, you know, basic commands on what we’re supposed to do," he said. 

The veterans train their dogs to block, which means they get a heads up when someone is approaching. 

Blocking is an essential command for Tyler Bales, a Marine Corps veteran who served for six years. He uses his dog, Radar, as a second set of eyes. 

"You're just, you're there. You're always watching your back. You're watching the back of your fellow Marines," he said. When you come home, it's kind of hard to get over that. 

Gordon also relies on his dog to help him cope with his hyper vigilant behavior. 

"I was always looking over my shoulder. I was always counting heads in a restaurant and stupid things like I would look at my wine glass and think 'what could I use as a weapon?'," he explained. "I know [Casey's] there to protect me….He just makes sure that I have my space and no body will harm me emotionally." 

Dr. Heather Axtell, a clinical psychologist at the Columbus VA hospital says hyper vigilance is not an uncommon behavior for military men and women returning from war.

"The veterans that are very alert can get exhausted with that because they are always looking at people trying to figure out if that person is a threat or a safe person," she said. 

For the first time since retiring two years ago, Army veteran Olena Tarnawsky Fergurson is able to attend her doctor’s appointments at the VA.

"Without my dog, before I got [my dog] Vata, before I started my training, I would have a meltdown every single time and could not attend an appointment," she said.

Fergurson sustained a traumatic brain injury in a plane crash and also suffers from PTSD.

"I used to not be able to go out into the community without having a meltdown. I used to not be able to drive, you know, without having rage attacks," she said. "With her [Vata], I am able to listen to music. I am able to focus on driving. I don't feel like cussing or cursing or slamming into people." 

But these success stories aren’t enough for the Department of Veteran Affairs to provide benefits to veterans who wish to use a service dogs for a mental health disorder.

The department amended its federal regulations last month, and will now only provide benefits to veterans requiring a service dog for visual, hearing or mobility impairments.

The VA cites a lack of evidence to support the finding that a mental health service dog will clinically improve a condition, and is awaiting the completion of a study mandated by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010. 

"We understand that anecdotally that some veterans say that it improves their quality of life, but we haven't been able yet to determine whether these dogs provide a medical benefit to veterans with mental illness," said Mark Ballesteros, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Axtell said she believes that a mental health service dog alone will not help a person completely overcome PTSD, but recognizes the benefits of having an animal companion. 

"I believe that a service animal is going to provide a lot of comfort. It's going to make you feel more secure, but it's not going to take away what happened. Nothing will," she said. "A real part of using service dogs for veterans is [that they] have this companion for themselves and they get this unconditional love."

Delorenzo says the demand for mental health service dogs has increased at Wags 4 Warriors since the VA's new federal regulation took effect. 

"Our applications probably went up 40 percent from that date," he said. "It did effect us, but we're here to take care of our own so we're here to do it."

It’s a service that veterans like Gordon say they cannot survive without.

"You never, never get over PTSD. It’s like alcoholism. You deal with it. And the dogs are literally, not metaphorically life savers," he said. 

The NDAA study to examine the medical impacts of mental health service dogs has matched 17 pairs of veterans and service dogs since its launch in 2011.  

Ballesteros said there's no word yet about when the study will be complete.

"The study will take the appropriate amount of time to get the findings that we need," he said.

The VA said it had plans to include more dogs and veterans in the study, but pairings have been suspended until further notice.