About three years ago, I was an old man with a pet poodle parking at the Madison West VA Clinic for my annual checkup. I ensured my dog had water, shade and fresh air during my appointment.
Dr. Ruiz and I were chatting about my dog, Chuffee, and how he improved my mental attitude immensely since living with me. She mentioned that it sounded like he would qualify as an emotional support animal. I had looked for a post-traumatic stress disorder/post-traumatic stress injury (PTSD/PTSI) service dog. The cost (from $25,000 to $45,000) was prohibitive. She had recently been in touch with a non-profit organization in Wausau that trains Veteran’s dogs to qualify as a service pet at no cost to Veterans.
I strongly suspected it was a scam but agreed to look into it.
I called the organization and needed to provide proof of an honorable discharge and a diagnosis of PTSD. The following week, Chuffee had to take an initial test on aggressive behavior toward strange dogs, reaction to loud noises, etc. He passed all the tests and we enrolled in the training program, which started the following week.
I was still wary that it would prove to be some sort of mirage; nobody was going to provide thousands of dollars of real training at no cost.
After eight months, and what felt like a couple of hundred trips to Wausau through all flavors of Wisconsin weather, Chuffee and I graduated as a certified PTSD/PTSI Service dog team. I was as proud as when I graduated from boot camp.
It all began with a visit to Dr Ruiz, my primary care doctor, who was simply attentive and creative, and willing to try something different.
So, what does a PTSD/PTSI service dog do as part of a team?
The specifics vary with each Veteran’s needs, although some are nearly universal. For example, most will “block” a stranger’s approach by simply inserting themselves between the handler and anyone coming near. They can alert you to unusual activity, thereby mitigating the hypervigilance issue. There are a variety of specialized actions that are customized to the Veteran’s needs. Chuffee will interrupt my rage response when he detects a rise in cortisol, the anxiety hormone all humans produce. I call this one of his “superpowers.”
Recently my wife, Chuffee and I met with friends to have dinner. We were quietly sitting in a back corner of the restaurant and Chuffee was at my feet. Out of the blue, one of the wait staff walked to our corner and started pounding on drums hanging on the wall. Apparently, this is part of recognizing a customer’s birthday. The sound was deafening.
I expected Chuffee to be utterly terrified. Frankly, everyone at our table jumped. Instead, he simply stood his ground and leaned on me to keep me from getting out of the booth. His "superpower" to help me control my rage was in full effect. Once the racket stopped, Chuffee did his "chill out, we got this, I love you, nobody died" signal by putting his feet on my chest and licking my nose. (It's my belief that anyone who is still angry when a poodle licks their nose is probably beyond redemption.)
Later that night, when anger woke me from a sound sleep, Chuffee was up on the bed calming me down. What would have been a stressful night, almost became a celebration.
All of this traces to a primary care VA doctor who not only thought outside the box, but probably never even considered a box existed.
And to an organization located in a town in the middle of “up north” that recognized a need and a solution and worked mightily to solve a problem that many of this country’s Veterans face.
Thank you to everyone involved from an old man and a poodle named Chuffee, his certified service dog.