The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

Local Scene

August 31, 2013

Unbreakable bond: Dog therapy program helps veterans deal with PTSD issue

PALESTINE — For more than 40 years, Teague Vietnam War veteran Larry Dennis has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, not able to go into crowded restaurants or stores and almost nightly dealing with head sweats and flashbacks.

But two years ago his life changed thanks to a program that rescues dogs and veterans — putting them together as a team. The program trains dogs — mostly from animal shelters — to become certified service dogs to help veterans deal with the symptoms of PTSD.

“For 47 years I could not go to places like Walmart that had a lot of people. I was pretty much restricted to my house,” the veteran told the Herald-Press Thursday. “My wife and I had to sleep in separate bedrooms because I would wake with head sweats and flashbacks.”

Now with his 2-year-old black Labrador service dog Sissy beside him 24/7, Dennis said he is a different man.

“Sissy lays on the floor by my bed and can recognize when I’m having flashbacks,” Dennis explained. “She will put her paws or her head on my chest to calm me down. Usually, that will get me up where I can fix myself a cup of coffee and sit there and relax until I can go back to sleep.”

A group of Vietnam Veterans of America Dogwood Chapter 991 and Associates of VVA members saw first-hand how Sissy calms Dennis down, when he got emotional explaining how much of a difference Sissy has made in his life during a get-together Thursday. While mostly appearing to take a nap during the meeting, Sissy rolled over on her belly when Dennis’ voice began to crack, encouraging him to pet her to take his mind off of the stress.

According to experts, a few minutes with a pet can help a person feel less anxious and less stressed. The level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, is lowered. And the production of serotonin, a chemical associated with well-being, is increased. One study, for example, showed that subjects lowered their blood pressure while petting their dog.

“(Sissy) has made a tremendous difference in my life. My PTSD doesn’t bother me as much. Before I panicked and couldn’t go to busy, crowded places because of my anxiety. I felt left out of my post-Vietnam life,” Dennis said. “I wish every veteran with PTSD could have the opportunity that I have had because it is life-changing.”

VVA Dogwood Chapter 991 President Allan Ayo can attest to the changes the service dog has made in Dennis’ life, having attended PTSD support group meetings with him for a handful of years.

“As someone who has known Larry prior to Sissy, I can say he is different, he is more at ease,” Ayo said.

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