It took a rescued dog named Hunter to help one Army veteran cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and reclaim some normalcy in his life.
Dan joined the Army just out of high school in 1986 and served until 2007. He’s proud of his military service and his ability to help those in need, like the time he helped build a school in a small Honduran village. Another high point he recalls with great excitement was providing security for the 2002 Winter Olympics, where he met many of the athletes.
“I served two years in Afghanistan as a combat engineer and I’m very proud I had the chance to do it,” says Dan. “It was a life-changing experience.”
Combat stress triggers PTSD
Still, Dan’s time overseas took its toll. Like so many service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was traumatized by his experiences and now suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. All of things he once loved – fishing and hiking in the mountains, going to yard sales and even simple interactions with his beloved wife, Holly – overwhelmed him. He was uncharacteristically short-tempered and very nervous in crowds.
Dan needed help.
The local Veterans Administration directed Dan to Canines With A Cause, a not-for-profit organization that helps shelter dogs find homes by training them as companion pets or service animals for individuals in need – including veterans.
Not-for-profit partnership helps Dan reclaim his life
In March of 2012, Dan and Holly visited Canines With A Cause. The first dog they saw was Hunter, a large, year-old Golden Retriever.
“We just connected, right there,” says the Army veteran. “We didn’t have the chance to look at any other dog; we didn’t need to. We wanted to take Hunter home with us right away, but we had to wait a couple of days, the longest of our lives.”
It was during these few days that Dan applied to Pets for Patriots, a charitable program he learned about through Canines With A Cause. If accepted, Hunter would be eligible to receive a range of benefits: ongoing discounted veterinary care from local partners, sponsor-provided pet discounts and direct support from Pets for Patriots to ease the costs of pet food and other essentials. These benefits help veterans, like Dan, afford the companionship and support of a dog or cat that might otherwise be out of reach financially.
From rescue dog to service dog
Dan was accepted and adopted Hunter. After completing the training program at Canines With A Cause, Hunter officially became Dan’s PTSD service dog.
A PTSD service dog is like any other service animal, except it’s trained to mitigate a psychological disability instead of a physical one. It is individually trained in obedience, as well as how to perform tasks and work in distracting public environments to mitigate its handler’s symptoms.
As a service dog, Hunter goes wherever his handler goes, even to school where Dan is studying business and entrepreneurship at the local community college. When Dan gets anxious, a PTSD episode is coming or his tone of voice changes, Hunter picks up on it right away. He distracts his veteran by vying for his attention, either demanding to play or be petted or licking Dan’s hand.
“Sometimes he wants to become a big version of a lap dog and tries to climb on me, just to distract me.”
Hunter moonlights as a therapy dog
Hunter has already brought big changes to Dan’s life, who can do all the things he once loved. He’s getting more involved with the veterans’ organizations that helped him in the past, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
These days, Hunter is pulling double duty as both a service and therapy dog. Dan and Holly care for an elderly woman who lives on the second floor of their house. They take Hunter to visit her, during which time she pets him and talks to him, all with a huge smile on her face.
“She is happier and wants to do more things,” beams Dan. “He’s therapy for her, too!”
For Hunter, it’s not all work and no play. Sometimes he’s like any other family dog. He likes to play fetch and tug-of-war with his toys, and enjoys napping on the couch.
“If you leave the room for even just five minutes,” Dan chuckles, “When you come back he will act like he hasn’t seen you for a year. Then he’ll sit and look at you with his endearing smile. He literally just smiles.”
Dan is very happy with his experience with Canines With A Cause and Pets For Patriots. He appreciates that there are people who care about veterans, and who will help them adopt last-chance animals to improve the lives of both pet and person. He smiles at his own companion pet and therapist.
“Hunter is so cool. The best dog ever. I am lucky he is in my life.”
In what ways is your pet your best therapist?