Service dogs help war veterans cope with PTSD

Published: Sunday, July 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

One of her worst nightmares had come true. Christin Barden, who experienced sexual trauma in the military and who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, was trapped in an elevator at her office with three men. She was without her trusty service dog Bravo. All she had was his picture on her badge.

Barden started to panic, but then she closed her eyes and thought of Bravo. Taking out his picture, she imagined gently petting his black fur. In her mind, Bravo was suddenly in his normal place right there beside her. The three men disappeared. She was alone now with Bravo and nothing else mattered. Instead of panic, she felt calm and peaceful.

"It was the longest five minutes of my life," Barden said. "But he got me through it even though he wasn't there."

Barden served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. She was medically discharged after three years and has struggled with concussions and PTSD for more than 10 years now. She has tried many options, including therapy, counseling and medication, to ease her pain. Her service dog Bravo, however, was the only thing that really worked for her.

Despite the large number of veterans who say military service dogs are effective in the struggle to cope with and recover from the symptoms of PTSD, access to the dogs became more restrictive and regulated this year because of a new army policy. The dogs do not work for everyone, but their potential positive impact has some veterans on waiting lists 500 names long and "knocking down doors" to obtain them.

Barden is one of many Americans who struggle with PTSD daily. The disorder affects 7 to 8 percent of the civilian population and 12 to 13 percent of military personnel, said Steve Allen, PTSD coordinator for Veteran's Affairs in Salt Lake City.

"People can have difficulties in establishing and maintaining close relationships," Allen said. "They can have difficulty driving and getting around in the community and they may have issues controlling their temper and become angry for seemingly small reasons."

Bravo, Bravo

Service dogs are trained to help veterans who suffer from PTSD or other disabilities. Organizations like Paws and Stripes help train young dogs and veterans together so they build strong relationships.

"There is a biological reason that the dogs make (veterans) feel better," said Lindsey Stanek, Paws and Stripes CEO. "There is a biochemical reaction when they are around the dog and endorphins are released. The dogs help them to calm down and may make things seem more manageable."

Stanek said service dogs help veterans with crowd anxiety and personal space and mobility issues common to PTSD.

Paws and Stripes has a waiting list of more than 500 veterans but resources and funding are scarce. Insurance companies do not cover the cost of a service dog for a veteran, Stanek said.

"We have never had to solicit potential enrollees," she said. "They have pretty much been knocking down our doors to do this from day one."

Barden recalled that PTSD negatively affected her work and personal life.

"It got to the point where I stopped going to the movies," she said. "I would try to pick fights with anyone, even if it was the biggest guy in the theater."

After many turbulent years she discovered Paws and Stripes and was introduced to Bravo. She recalls how Bravo bounded up to her, licked her hand and sat at her feet.

"We instantly had a connection," Barden recalls. "I fell in love with him as soon as I saw him."

Tightening the leash

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