By Steva Dooley
The battle veterans fight every day for years after coming back home is real. We hear about it every day on social media and in the news. Things we all take for granted are hard or impossible for many of these veterans — things like going into a restaurant, a movie, sometimes even meeting a stranger on the street can trigger episodes of hyper-vigilance or even plain panic.
Counseling helps, as does family and community support. Many veterans have found help from service dogs, and one of the providers of service dogs for veterans is Northwest Battle Buddies. A non-profit organization based in Battle Ground, Wash., it has been supplying trained PTSD service dogs to veterans. The NWBB dogs are provided free to the veterans; the only cost to the veteran is travel expenses and a place to stay while taking the six weeks of training they have to go through to earn their dog.
John Evans, a veteran and a resident of Basin, went through the training in January and February to get his dog, Captain.
Life for John has been much better with his Buddy.
John entered the service in the late 1990s and throughout his service served four tours overseas — three of them in the Middle East, the last being a year-long tour in Iraq. In 2005, after his first tour in Iraq, he was diagnosed with PTSD, but continued with his service career and later served in Iraq again.
After coming home, the counselor he sees for his PTSD encouraged him to get a service dog, hoping to be able to reduce the medication he was taking, and helping him get back to being able to interact with society. John started searching. All of the sites he found charged so much for the dogs or were too far away to be feasible. Many had waiting lists up to four years long. Then a guy in Powell recommended he look into Northwest Battle Buddies.
“By this time I was about ready to just say the heck with the whole thing,” John said. “But I filled out the paperwork and sent it in, all the while thinking, ’Well, whatever.’ I was just about ready to give up. “
Then came the fateful day. John had sent in his paperwork in late fall of 2017. In August of 2018, he got the call that he was scheduled to go to the training in January of 2019. During that time he was able to save the money for travel expenses and a place to stay.
The first meeting had a cautious tone. John had been a canine handler while he was in service. He and his canine partners were in security. So when they opened the door and let this big German shepherd dog into the room, he was just a little nervous.
“I wasn’t sure quite what to expect,” John said. “When I was handling, the dogs might come in growling and biting.”
Captain came in and cautiously sniffed John over, then he lay his head on John’s knee. That was the beginning, although it took most of the first week for John and Captain to really click.
“It was tough the first couple of days,” John said. “I had to basically relearn how to handle a dog. Being a canine handler and having a service dog are completely different.”
By the end of the six-week training, John and Captain had become a team.
“He began to really sense my moods and try to comfort me, but I had to learn to not push him away when he was trying to help me,” John said. “Captain would sense me feeling tense and he would put his head against my leg. My canine handler training told me to push him away. I had to change that and accept that he was trying to help me.”
John has found that Captain is very sensitive to his moods and his reactions to stressful situations. Captain is trained to comfort when John has a bad dream or nightmare, when he enters any situation that could trigger the PTSD.
“I still have trouble sleeping, but I am sleeping much better,” John said. “Captain starts out sleeping on the floor, but if I stir or mumble, he will jump on the bed and lie down beside me. I know he is there and am able to usually go back to sleep.”
John finds it is easier to go into public places with Captain, too. Before he got the dog, going into a crowded restaurant was almost impossible. Having Captain with him makes it a lot easier.
And he has found a bonus. Captain is picking up on being his ears when he has his hearing aids out.
“He can tell when I take them out, apparently they make a sound when they are turned on. As soon as I take them out, he will be next to me and if someone comes to the door, he will sit up, bark once, and stare in the direction of the sound,” John said. “That is when I know he heard something and I need to go see. Of course he walks with me to go check the sound out.”
When John is out and about, Captain wears a service dog vest. During that time he is working and is serious about his job.
“There are things that people need to know,” John said.
For example, when a dog has its vest on, don’t pet the dog. Don’t even ask to pet the dog because it is working.
Never give a service dog treats. They are trained to not accept food from people because they go into restaurants, they have to be trained to not sniff, lick or even look at food. They are only fed in their dishes at home. Treats are only given to them at home in the dish.
“Please respect the veteran and his dog,” John said. “If a person has a service dog and they ask you not to touch it, please back off and respect their space.”
Northwest Battle Buddies is hosting a fundraiser to help defray the cost of veterans dogs in Cody on May 4 at Buffalo Bill Center of the West. John and Captain will be in attendance, along with other veterans who have received their dogs from Northwest Battle Buddies.
There will be a reception, a dinner, and a celebration showcasing their dogs and honoring the veterans.
More information can be found on their website; http://www.northwestbattlebuddies.org, or their Facebook page Northwest Battle Buddies.