To the outside world you can have it all. The job. The spouse. The children. But on the inside, the feeling can be very different. This is true none more so than for the men and women who serve our country in the British Armed Forces, with many experiencing traumatic situations the likes of you and I can barely begin to imagine. This can manifest itself over time, with the outcome being PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Our recent posts have focused on the ways in which dogs can help those with a physical condition, namely sight loss and there are other charities out there which focus on the ways dogs can help with the physical scars of war, but can dogs help those with conditions which don’t necessarily show themselves on the outside? This is something I was keen to find out about, so I got in my car on probably one of the last days of summer (sad times!!) and drove down to Devon to meet with Veterans with Dogs; a charity which knows the answer to this and has seen firsthand how dogs really can help overcome the mental scars of war. Come and join me today as we hear how dogs can transform lives in the most incredible way.
VETERANS WITH DOGS
I enjoyed the sunshine as I drove down to Devon (which by the way, if you haven’t been is stunning; certainly from what I saw anyway!) My dreaded SatNav signalled for me to turn down a very quiet road. I then meandered along a narrow lane surrounded by stunning scenery (and if that wasn’t pleasant enough) I was greeted by the most beautiful building: The home of Veterans with Dogs, as well as others.
I was fortunate enough to meet with the Founder of Veterans with Dogs, Craig MacLellan, along with his dog Boo (a gorgeous Labrador soon to be taking her test to see if she’s passed her training to become a fully fledged service dog!) As Boo had her working jacket on, she knew she was to be on her best behaviour (which I hasten to add she was!) Not a peep from her while Craig and I sat in the grounds and spoke about this intriguing charity. *If you don’t know already, it is worth noting that should you ever see a dog wearing any kind of service jacket, this means they’re working and not to be stroked (tough I know, but it is important to understand this). Luckily I was aware of this already, but I thought it was important to share with you.
As we sat in the beautiful grounds with a cup of tea, the first thing that struck me was how peaceful I felt. There were people walking around, talking etc but this didn’t distract from the tranquillity. From speaking with Craig, it was an important observation, as this is often one of the first places a Veteran attends once they have started their journey to manage their PTSD and are ready for a dog to help continue with this progress. They have often travelled a long way (currently this is the only facility in the UK at the moment, although Craig hopes to change this); they are nervous about what to expect and may be feeling overwhelmed about meeting new people, so Craig explained to me it was a very exciting time when he was able to invite them here.
TURNING A NEGATIVE INTO A POSITIVE
Craig Founded Veterans with Dogs in 2012 and he was very open as to why. Craig suffered from PTSD after serving as a Marine, hit rock bottom and sadly even contemplated ending his life. What stopped him? His dog, Fudge. Whilst undergoing treatment for PTSD, which included suffering from anxiety, flashbacks and extreme panic attacks, Craig was able to take his dog to a residential facility run by another charity; Combat Stress. Craig later learned the intention was to treat him and ‘wean him off his dependency on his dog’ but a remarkable thing occurred; the staff and others also embarking on treatment recognised how Fudge would approach those feeling particularly vulnerable during group sessions.
Fudge could pick up signals that were invisible to the human eye and would stay by the individual’s side until such times she felt her job was done. When it was time for Craig to leave, everyone was devastated Fudge was leaving too, as not only was this is a very special dog but Fudge was helping others improve. Craig was quick to recognise there was a need for more dogs like Fudge, so he made the decision to help others and set up Veterans with Dogs and so far he has helped over 60 Veterans and has at least 400 on the waiting list, which is growing by the day. Are you inspired?!! I certainly am!
WHO CAN BE HELPED?
As anyone who owns a dog knows, it is a big decision to take on the responsibility of dog ownership and the same applies for owning a service dog. There are therefore some key points Craig explained need to be in place in order to be helped by one of their dogs:
1) You need to be a genuine serviceman/woman or Veteran. This may sound simple given the name of the charity but you’d be surprised by some of the enquiries they receive.
2) You need to be engaged in treatment of PTSD. For example, you need to be actively making strides to recover. If someone is looking for a quick fix, sadly the programme wouldn’t be right.
3) You need a good support network. For example, a spouse, friends, mental health specialists. This will enable you to make the most of the programme and increase the chances of success.
4) You need to be capable of looking after yourself. It stands to reason if you’re unable to look after yourself, you’ll be unlikely to be able to look after a dog.
With these parts all in place, the next step would be to visit the Centre and start the next step of recovery by owning a service dog. As Craig so cleverly put it ‘”If you break a leg, you don’t go straight to physiotherapy. The break needs to heal first”.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Once contact has been made with Veterans with Dogs, a questionnaire is filled out to firstly check everything is in place as mentioned above. It will also pick up on whether the individual owns a dog already (whilst harder to complete the course, Veterans with Dogs can help support individuals train their existing dogs, depending on characteristics such as age, breed etc) although the preference is for dogs to be supplied directly by the charity. Once this is all established, a date is set for the individual to visit the Centre and stay for up to 5 days in order to meet their new dog and commence training as part of the residential programme phase. Veterans with Dogs recognise this is a big step and therefore actively encourage a supporting spouse or friend to attend as well. This helps with confidence and helps to develop the support which will be needed once home.
Unlike other charities, the training of the dogs isn’t done for the recipient. This has to be completed by them. A great way of cementing the bond and providing extra focus to assist with recovery. I personally think this is brilliant!! Obviously this can’t be done in just 5 days or less depending on how many days the individual decides to stay (the minimum is two days). During the residential programme they meet with others also taking part on the course as well as dog trainers and mental health specialists. Here they begin to master the key techniques they’ll need when home, as well as continuing their own techniques to improve their PTSD. Volunteer dog trainers are provided across the UK who meet up regularly to continue the training, plus Craig tells me he’s even been known to answer a call at night with a question about dog food etc. This just gives you an idea of how passionate Craig is about Veterans with Dogs and helping people generally.
HOW DO THE DOGS HELP?
You may ask if someone is suffering from a panic attack, how on earth can a dog help? You may be surprised by the answer. I know I was. Craig explained there are several ways the dogs can help:
1) Recognising escalating behaviour. If an individual is about to suffer a panic attack or anxiety, there are often signs which are a precursor to this occurring. Once these signs are recognised, instead of allowing it to escalate, the dogs are trained to react to a command and provide assistance. For example, the individual can kneel and the dog is able to put his/her paws around their neck to help calm them down. Literally a cuddle from your dog. Beautiful. I for one can’t think of anything better.
2) Grounding techniques. Sometimes being in public situations can feel overwhelming. If this occurs, the dog is trained to react to either a direct command or even a gesture and then remove an individual from the situation. As Craig described, Boo literally drags him out of an area once the command is given and takes him to an area of open space. Even if Craig decided he didn’t want to leave, it sounds like there wouldn’t be much choice!
3) Low days. Sometimes just getting out of bed can be difficult so routine is important. Craig explains that Boo physically gets him out of bed in the morning by a series of interventions including even removing the duvet if Craig is having a particularly bad day. Boo will then go straight to the medicine cabinet and provide Craig with his medication to ensure he progresses well through the day (and Boo knows until these tasks are complete, there will be no treat, which is obviously Boo’s goal as all training is based on reward training).
A SHINING LIGHT IN TIMES OF DARKNESS
Craig summed up how he views the role of Veterans with Dogs. He explained it is all about recovery and wellbeing. Helping an individual to build themselves up again and regain pride during a time where many have often felt helpless. By having a dog by your side he said it is “like having CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) on four legs!!” My visit to Veterans With Dogs left me feeling overwhelmed (in a very positive way) as it demonstrated to me how the courage and perseverance of man can lead to brilliant things (all with the support and encouragement of a dog: the perfect combination!)
I’d like to extend a very hearty THANK YOU to Craig for taking the time to speak with me personally. His passion and forward-thinking have already helped many and I have no doubt, along with his team, will help many more. If you’d like to know more about Veterans with Dogs or would like to support them either via donations (again, they receive zero government funding) or if you’re a dog trainer and would be willing to provide some time to help with the continued training of the dogs with their owners across the country, you can find all you need to know at the end of this post (just below this picture of Ted and his thoughts about this superb charity!) They’re even holding a charity event in Okehampton at the beginning of October if you’re nearby (or if you’d like to donate a raffle prize, I can guarantee it would be appreciated more than you know). Let’s get behind Veterans with Dogs and enable them to help those who ultimately protect us all.
Sarah, Ted & Millie xxx
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