When I began training service dogs for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder over ten years ago, most people had never heard of it. Most people, including myself thought it was a condition that only happened to people who had seen the horrors of war. Little did I know back then, that I actually also had PTSD.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as an exposure to a traumatic event in which the person has experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. And that the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
One of the common symptoms of PTSD is recurrent recollections of the event. These can occur at any time. Intense distress can occur when exposed to cues that resemble some aspect of the event. Often times nightmares prevent peaceful sleep. As soon as the mind relaxes the event unfolds into terror again and again every time sleep is at hand. These terrors can occur during the waking hours as well, when you feel like you are back in the same place re-experiencing the fear and reliving the horror. When these things happen, both in your sleep or while you are awake, the body physically responds to the fear much in the same way it did when it happened.
Having experienced this trauma, our mind and body tries to protect us, and so a common thing we do is avoid things that remind us of the trauma. Sometimes, I know this is true for me, an important aspect of the trauma cannot be recalled. After 50 years there are still parts of my trauma I do not remember. I believe they are so horrible my mind does not want to process them consciously.
There are times when the PTSD Symptoms are worse than others. Times when the body wants to go inside itself for protection. During these times there is a reduced interest in significant activities, there is a feeling of detachment from others and loving feelings towards others are not to be found. For many this is accompanied by the feeling that there is no future for us. This can lead to self medicating problems such as drug, alcohol or food addiction.
Everything becomes a matter of life or death. You must pay attention to every little detail, to hold it in your head, see every little thing around you; just to be sure you are safe. Everything becomes so hard that you go into your home and you close the blinds and you don’t come out. For me, I knew I needed help when I was beginning to not feel safe even in my house. Where do you go from there? You can’t sleep because you are afraid of what will happen while you are sleeping, or you will have night terrors and be awake again. You get so tired, because you never get any rest. When people want to interrupt your hyper-vigilant state, they prevent you from keeping yourself safe, so you start avoiding them. You go from seemingly calm to rage in half a second. You jump at sudden sounds or movements. Your brain is too full for you to be able to concentrate.
When you are in the throes of PTSD there is no peace, no joy, no quality of life.
One of the interesting things about trauma is that it does not always lead to PTSD. Some people, my Dad for example, have PTSD and then seem to recover from it and live seemingly normal lives. My dad fought in WWII. I remember him having terrible nightmares when I was a child. But those went away with time, and he could tell stories about the war without triggering events.
Some people experience trauma and it doesn’t seem to cause PTSD. Others are able to put off the PTSD for many years, by keeping themselves busy with life and family, only to retire and have the symptoms of PTSD show up then. Who will develop it seems to depend on the event and the person. In a study by Kessler et al., 1995 20% of women developed PTSD and only 8% of men.
Other interesting statistics indicate that being poor, having less education, having a bad childhood or previous psychological problems may put you at higher risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event.
The symptoms of PTSD are pretty much the same no matter what the event was that caused the trauma. To help people with PTSD feel safe, here are some guidelines for what to do and not to do.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Mother Teresa
- Listen quietly and attentively, be relaxed and respectful
- Offer compassion, with strength and without judgment
- Understand the impact of TV – war movies can cause PTSD symptoms in veterans
- Crowds or large groups are very difficult for people with PTSD
- Loud noises, especially sudden noises will likely cause an exaggerated response
- Many veterans are light sensitive due to Traumatic Brain Injury, or seizure activity
- If a veteran is Sleeping or having Nightmares Do NOT try to wake them by touching them
- No “fooling around”: Don’t sneak up on someone, don’t make sudden noises behind them
- When we help a Veteran to heal, we help his or her family to heal, and from there, the community, and from there, our Country
Graduation Speech at 4 Paws 2 Freedom Service Dog Graduation November 12, 2016
For almost 2 years, we have been listening to the political rhetoric that culminated this week with the election for President. As I was reeling at this unexpected turn of events, I realized that no matter who had won the election – half of America would be scared of the new president elect.
I bring this up at this celebration to illustrate how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder works and what these teams have battled to get to this point. PTSD is all about fear. The fear that keeps us at home, away from crowds, loud noises, sudden movements, and the people we don’t know if we can trust – which is almost everyone.
I was recently confronted in a store by a woman who had a physically disabled child. She accused me of bringing my emotional support animal to the store, and of course emotional support animals do not have public access rights. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I did not have a disability and therefore had no right to a service dog.
She is correct that to have a service dog, one must have a disability; however, PTSD can be a disability. Which brings me to: what is considered a disability then?
The legal definition of a disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual”
So to break that down, “Limits shall be determined without regard to mitigation measures, such as medications, assistive devices, or reasonable accommodations, unless the mitigating measure itself limits a major life activity.”
For example, “A mental or psychological disorder or condition limits a major life activity if it makes the achievement of the major life activity difficult.”
What then is a major life activity? “Major life activities shall be broadly construed and shall include physical, mental, and social activities and working.”
So how is PTSD, which has its basis in fear, a disability?
First of all PTSD is NOT all in our heads, it actually causes physical pain, because emotional pain is physical. It hurts in a way that cannot be relieved by taking pain meds. It swirls around you, in your head, in your gut and in your heart. It physically makes your body hurt, it causes pain and it paralizes you from doing what you want. You can’t or have extreme difficulty making your body do something it is afraid to do. You cannot run away from emotional pain because if follows you, but you can isolate with it. It becomes your focus and as long as you stay focused on it, it can’t hurt you. But you can’t drop your focus. So that means anything happening around you has to be ignored because it is dangerous for you to look away. If someone interrupts you, it is imperative for your safety that you stop them.
Maybe some of you have been on the receiving end of this. Have you ever attempted to calm your loved one and had them be abrupt, dismissive, rude or maybe even violent?
When we are in this state of mind, the only way we feel we can be safe is to stay in our heads, and that is not a good place to be.
This is one of the ways a PTSD Service dog can help. They can recognize the behavior and intervene through persistently alerting their person, by unconditionally loving them even when they are in this ugly place, and by distracting them to get them out of their head.
Safety is an elusive thing, and we are triggered by so many things that isolating is our first thought when something goes wrong. Our service dogs allow us to step aside of the fear. First and foremost, our dogs keep us safe: from the unknown fears outside of us and the unknown fears inside our souls. What we are capable of, after all that we have seen, witnessed and experienced is scary. We don’t really know where our breaking point is for sure – and what we will do when we reach it. But with our dog we are not alone; we are completely understood by this animal that isn’t even of our own species. And this dog has been trained to know what to do when we reach these breaking points.
How is that possible, that an animal that doesn’t even speak the same language could understand us so well? Why would they even care? God knows most people don’t.
We could consider that dogs are pack animals as are humans. So we share some of the core values that keep both species alive. Work together in a pack to be able to eat, and have protection.
We both show emotions of sadness, and happiness. We see that when we leave our dogs at home and return to their joyful greeting.
We are physically somewhat the same, we have legs and a head and a heart.
Yet none of that explains the symbiotic relationship between a service dog and its handler. The partnership that is forged through working together in good times and bad, through learning together, experiencing life together in all of its emotional roller coaster moments as well as silent, still sunsets.
Of course our dogs are trained to do many things that will help allow us to go out into places we would not attempt to go without them. They have been taught to cover our back, keep clear space around us. For some of us, our dogs alert when we start ramping up. The tasks each animal performs depends on what the handler is afraid of. How many times do you clear the room before you go to bed and attempt to sleep? The dog can help with that. Are you afraid to go to sleep because you might have a night terror or flash back? The dog can wake you from that as soon as your sleep becomes restless. Does danger lurk in the unknown of darkness? Your dog can turn on the light so you do not enter a dark house.
Not all the dogs will learn the same skills, and there are still many skills these teams can add to their repertoire by taking additional graduate classes. These graduating teams have got the basics, but there is still much they can learn as they continue their work together.
These teams that are graduating today are all veterans. They have all been through different classes, as we had a large number of student drops during this session.
Joe and Leonitus were homeless for some time throughout the training, without a car or a roof over their head during the rainy weather. He struggled to get to classes every week, but Team Joe and Leo persevered and now have an apartment and Joe has a new job.
Pati and Rolando started before the classes began and were training in a regular obedience class I was offering at the Sacramento Pet Food Express, before they joined the service dog class in Roseville.
Kahanu has had two different dogs, when his first dog decided service dog work was not for her, he got a new puppy, Mikey and started over. And Kahanu and Lola are now expecting their first baby.
Life is unpredictable, and this class exemplifies the resilience of these teams. I couldn’t be prouder of their accomplishments.
Master Service Dog Trainer
4 Paws 2 Freedom
Moral Injury Blog
In any faith-based society we are brought up under the basic rule that life is sacred … “thou shalt not kill.” All the religions of the world state this belief in various ways, it forms the basis of being a civilized society. Yet in war, we place our men and women in situations where they have a duty to fight and kill others. This moral conflict can be devastating for returning servicemen and women (and their families). For many this struggle emerges years after the events of war. It can be seen in many forms PTSD, Moral Injury, Alcoholism, and Homelessness. … All can be the result of these moral conflicts.
St. Clement’s has long had the heart to serve our veterans. Last month, 4 Paws 2 Freedom, a nonprofit organization that is led by Terry Sandhoff, approached the Vestry with the opportunity to join forces to build a safe place for veterans and their families to get education and support. The Vestry agreed to provide the portable and the surround grounds for this expanded ministry to use on a full time basis. Over the next 6 months, we will be creating new programs and opportunities to improve the lives of those who served our Country. The Safe Harbor for children will become the Safe Harbor for Veterans.
One of the most exciting things about this new venture is that anyone who feels the call to be a part of this ministry can do so. The goal is to have someone in the portable full time, so that veterans can stop and find peace, a kind word, a place to have purpose and be loved. This is who we are at St. Clement’s. We will be teaching classes; offering support groups (Grow Groups), and meet-ups for Veterans and their families.
If you have a skill you would like to share with others, you can teach a class, or if you like to cook and want to prepare cookies or try out new recipes, you can bring those to be enjoyed by an appreciative audience. The thing is: YOU have a place here too!! Whatever your skill is, chances are, this is a place you can use it to help others. If you need a peaceful place to regroup, you will find it here.
On July 1, we have called on our veteran friends to come out to St. Clement’s for a clean-up day, to start the beautification of the grounds. Monday July 11th we will be starting weekly classes. From 1-2pm we will be teaching a weekly Meditation Class. From 2-5pm we will be offering crafting time, starting with a Learn Basic Crochet Class. We are looking forward to gardening and music opportunities in the near future.
This is an exciting new ministry that helps all of us, while we help others.