There are many good reasons why they say a dog is man’s best friend. Here’s one of them.
By Jan Fishler
I had just sampled a slice of the walnut raisin bread at the bakery inside our local Safeway when a tall, rather handsome gentleman, who appeared to be in his early sixties, and his short, dark companion caught my eye. Unlike most of the shoppers who were scurrying about with carts laden with the bargains of the day, this pair seemed to be marching to a different drummer. As I munched on the bread, I watched as the man approached the counter and leaned toward the clerk.
“Is Dana here today?” he asked. The clerk shook her head, no. The man shrugged and motioned toward his friend. “She always gives Jake a cookie.”
The clerk nodded in understanding, and Jake, anticipating the treat, watched her expectantly. “Here you go,” she said, reaching over the counter.
The tall man nodded, and Jake moved closer. He gently took the cookie from the clerk’s hand, stepped back, gazed lovingly at the man, and waited.
“Go ahead, Jake.” The companion devoured the cookie in one gulp and licked his lips.
“This is one of our favorite stops,” the man said as he handed me a business card that identified both him and his companion: John Saathoff, handler. Jake, service dog.
Like many veterans, at first he was in denial about his condition.
I quickly scanned the card. “Vietnam?” I asked. John nodded. “PTSD?” He nodded again. I told John I wanted to write a story about the two of them, and a few days later the three of us met at a local restaurant for coffee. Jake and John sat on one side of the booth and I sat across from them.
After four failed marriages, John finally realized he had a problem
After four failed marriages, John finally realized that he had a problem. Although he’d been to college, was a hypnotherapist, and had a successful career as a building contractor, John was plagued by issues that damaged his personal and professional relationships. Prone to angry outbursts, irrational behavior, and flashbacks – all of which stemmed from the two years he spent in Vietnam, 1967 and 1968 – John’s life had begun to fall apart.
In 1982, a psychiatrist diagnosed John with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and encouraged him to seek disability compensation. Like many veterans, at first he was in denial about his condition, but he filed a claim and began to learn about PTSD. The next 15 years were a struggle. Due to “lost records,” the former paratrooper’s claim was denied, he lost faith in his ability to work, and he became reclusive and depressed. Speaking of those dark days, John recently told me, “When it came to my work as a hypnotherapist, I felt like a fraud. How could I help others when I had so many problems?”
Jake comes into his life
John spent the next several years holed up in his house. In 2001, two events changed his life: After much effort on John’s part, the VA granted him full disability for PTSD – and he acquired Jake. John explained, “Of course the money was helpful, but it was Jake who changed my life.”
As a service dog, Jake is entitled to be with John wherever he goes.
When he scooped the lab/doberman mix out of a box in front of a Walmart that fateful day 10 years ago, John’s healing began. “Jake and I are inseparable,” John said. “We go everywhere together.” Upon hearing his name, Jake, who had been sitting attentively next to John at our both, looked up. As a service dog, Jake, who wears a special harness, is entitled to be with John wherever he goes.
Although there are organizations that specialize in training service dogs, John trained Jake himself. “Jake knows about 60 commands,” John said. To demonstrate, he asked Jake, “Do you love Daddy?” Jake responded with a low, friendly growl that made John’s blue eyes twinkle, followed by a big slurpy lick on the cheek.
The Americans With Disabilities Act
According to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal originally meant “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items.” In 2009, the ADA expanded the definition to include “individually trained animals that do work or perform tasks for the benefit of individuals with disabilities, including psychiatric, cognitive, and mental disabilities.” There are several types of service dogs, including guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility dogs, seizure alert/response dogs, autism dogs and psychiatric service dogs.
Veterans with PTSD are most likely to use a psychiatric-service dog that has been trained to perform tasks that help their handler function in ways the non-disabled take for granted. For example, for several years John was unable to leave his house for anything other than the most basic tasks. With Jake by his side, John now feels safe enough to go out to lunch or dinner.
A psychiatric-service dog might also help a veteran who has severe hyper-vigilance (another symptom of PTSD) and believes there is an intruder in their home or office. If the dog is trained to search and bark if they find someone, the handler can feel a peace of mind in their home or office that would not be possible without canine assistance. For veterans who live alone, a service dog can provide several psychological benefits, including a sense of purpose. Some days John didn’t want to get out of bed, but knowing he had to walk Jake required him to get up and go outside. The fresh air was uplifting, and before he knew it, John was feeling a lot better.
According to an article on www.servicedogcentral.org, service dogs have helped relieve some of the symptoms of depression, created a greater sense of safety, and fostered independence for many people. Caring for a dog also prompts others to care for themselves. Even more amazing about the power of a service dog is that people who have suicidal thoughts have reported that, “they would not be able to act on their thoughts of suicide for fear of leaving a beloved companion without care.”
Keep in mind that therapy dogs and companion dogs do not have the same rights as service dogs. As a general rule, therapy dogs are trained in basic obedience, are often graduates of assistance-dog organizations, and are especially suited for this work because of their gentle temperament. Companion dogs are family pets with no specific training or certification.
If you have a physical or emotional disability, and believe a service dog could improve the quality of your life, there are many organizations that can help you. Although certification of service animals is not required by law, the Service Animal Registry of America (SARA) in Midlothian, Texas, recommends voluntary registration and identification from a reputable organization. According to the SARA web site, certification and identification makes things easier when dealing with service-animal accessibility in public places, private houses with no-pet policies, lodging, and public transportation.
John believes that every veteran who has PTSD should consider getting a service dog.
John believes that every veteran who has PTSD should consider getting a service dog. “Once I had Jake, I was able to stop taking antidepressants and start living again.” Although you might find your ideal companion in a box outside your local Walmart, and train the dog yourself, there are organizations that provide training and match dogs with the right handler. A good place to begin your search is with Canine Assistants, a non-profit organization that trains and provides service dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities and other special needs. If you find a dog, and want to hire a trainer in your area, the Delta Society can help.
*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.
Jan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.