By CHERIL VERNON
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.
Waco dog trainer Lisa Williams placed Sissy with Dennis two years ago. Sissy was one of about 20 dogs Williams has trained to work with veterans suffering from PTSD.
“Once a dog bonds with a warrior, it’s not uncommon for the dog to help in this kind of situation. Some dogs will lick their face, trying to calm them down. Most of the time it works,” Williams said.
Williams’ training program consists of 12 to 16 weeks from start to finish, beginning with finding a dog that will work well as a service dog.
“Sometimes we can use the warrior’s dog if it can pass my evaluation, but in most cases, they are shelter or rescue dogs,” Williams said, noting that she has used numerous breeds over the years ranging from Labradors, German shepherds, border collies, catahoulas and Australian shepherds.
“I’ve had 15 years of experience training dogs. It’s what I enjoy to do — to help warriors while placing a dog, hoping they have a better life,” Williams said.
She also has trained rottweilers and Dobermans for service dogs, but doesn’t suggest those and similar breeds for veterans who plan to take their dog on an Army base (those breeds are not allowed, regardless of their service dog status).
“The total cost is $2,500 per team and we don’t charge a dime to the warrior,” Williams said. “Many times, my warriors have cut their medications in half after getting a service dog. I had one guy who use to carry a gun everywhere he went until he got a dog. Now instead of carrying a gun, he takes the dog.”
Following a dog’s evaluation and around four-weeks of training, Williams works on finding a match with veterans suffering from PTSD. Most of her veterans have returned from war recently, but she has had veterans from almost every time period. If the dog and veteran are deemed to be a good match for each other, the training begins. The warrior takes the dog home and brings it to the weekly training sessions with Williams.
“It’s a bonding issue. They have to trust the dog and the dog has to trust you,” Williams said. “Not all dogs are able to do this and the handler plays a big role in the training too.”
Part of their training is done out in public, taking the dog and veteran with her to busy public places such as grocery stores, restaurants and pet stores so the dog especially gets used to the sounds.
“We want to make sure the dog is use to the sounds and noises and doesn’t get spooked or scared,” Williams said.
Once the training is complete, the veteran takes the dog to get the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizenship classification for the team. With specific training to help the veteran deal with PTSD, the dog will be eligible for service dog designation as well, according to the American Disabilities Act.
“The veteran will still have to do ongoing training with the dog,” Williams said. “If there is a problem, he can bring the dog back and we can see if we can fix it.”
VVA member John Chandler of Jacksonville has seen results of Williams’ training. A retired law enforcement officer, Chandler is a member of the National Narcotic Detector Dog Association, which trains narcotic dogs. Through this group he met Williams years ago, leading Williams to working with veterans with PTSD.
“Finding a dog that will fit the bill isn’t easy,” Chandler explained. “I’ve looked at 50 dogs before and found a little glitch. But when I see certain dogs, I just know they have it. It’s just the way the dog handles itself.”
Due to budget cuts with the organization Williams has worked with in the past, the VVA Chapter Dogwood 991 in Palestine has stepped in to help raise awareness about the training program Williams offers and how the public can help in her efforts to assist veterans with PTSD.
“It’s a wonderful program and as a veterans’ organization we want to step up and help with monetary donations and other things Lisa needs to take some of the burden off of her financially,” Ayo told Williams. “We certainly respect what you (Williams) do. Not only does it help veterans, it saves dogs.”
Monetary donations and dog food are Williams’ biggest needs, but assistance with spaying and neutering and other veterinarian-related bills would be helpful as well. Williams suggested Purina Dog Chow (not large dog brand) and Nylabones® (not rawhides). She also could use old towels and blankets. Stuffed animals are not suggested.
Dogwood Trails Assisted Living and Memory Care Center, located at 1625 W. Spring St. in Palestine, will serve as a local drop-off location for monetary donations and other items. For more information locally, call Debbie Wesson at 903-373-8639.
Monetary donations also can be sent to directly to Williams at the following address: Lisa Williams, 3339 Speegle Rd., Waco, Texas, 6712. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org