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Pets comforting companions for suffering veterans

November 7, 2018

A lot of us have fond memories of a pet dog, and some still might come home every day to excited barking. For others, however, a dog isn’t always just a pet. And they deserve so much more recognition than just some leftover scraps at dinnertime. Dogs can have a lasting, deep effect on a person’s mental health — just ask the leaders of 1Pet1Vet.

How dogs can help

A dog is “this little set of eyes and shagginess that looks back up at you and loves you,” said Benjamin “Drew” Sanders. Sanders is the behavioral health counselor at Aunt Martha’s Kankakee Community Health Center & Office and chairman of the board of directors for 1Pet1Vet, a Manteno organization headed by a group of veterans looking to decrease the abnormally high suicide rate among their peers.

Many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental illness that might occur in people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident or a sexual assault. Veterans with PTSD might feel unsafe in their post-war environments, causing them to withdraw from family and friends and, ultimately, driving them to suicide. Statistically, veterans attempt suicide at comparatively higher rates than the general population.

Twenty veterans per day attempt suicide, according to Eric Carlson, U.S. Army veteran, 1Pet1Vet training coordinator and treasurer of the organization’s board of directors.

But a remarkable thing happens when a veteran is introduced to a service dog.

“Studies have been done showing that for veterans with service dogs, the suicide rate falls down to that of the general population,” Carlson said.

Service dogs are specifically trained to spot signs of physical or mental distress in the person they’re assigned to work with. For veterans with PTSD, this means anxiety symptoms such as nightmares, panic attacks and sudden flashbacks. When service dogs notice these symptoms, they are trained to respond by comforting the distressed veteran through physical touch.

And that’s the mission of 1Pet1Vet. The organization works tirelessly to provide a trained service dog to local veterans with PTSD at absolutely no cost. Veterans located within a 50-mile radius of Manteno can apply to the program, which was established in 2013. For up to two years, veterans and their new dogs attend training programs at Peggy Moran’s School for Dogs in Manteno so the pair can learn to work together as equal parts of a team.

Not a dog whisperer

A few miles outside of Manteno, in the quaint countryside surrounded by gravel roads, sits the house and full-time business of Peggy Moran, a highly experienced trainer with more than 40 years of experience. But don’t dare call her a “dog whisperer” — don’t even call her a dog trainer. “I train humans,” she said.

Moran has been training humans and their dog counterparts since 1975, when she began her business as a teenager. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in anthrozoology, the study of human and animal relationships, and she has taken master’s courses in clinical animal behavior from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Nearly every person — and animal — she’s worked with can attest to her skills, her compassion and her knowledge.

Moran sees animals through a unique lens.

“As a child, I didn’t really see a line of demarcation between human and nonhuman animals. I just saw other living beings. And everybody’s different. I was just curious and fascinated by all other lives,” she said.

That philosophy is apparent in her training style.

“We don’t whisper them. We don’t voodoo them. We just very carefully and patiently, over time, help behaviors emerge and then we strengthen those behaviors,” Moran said. Her training does not involve demanding a dog “obey” or bow down to its owner.

“So, I don’t look at it like obedience training; I look at it like team training,” she added.

Moran’s training doesn’t simply involve extrinsic motivations, such as dog food or treats. Instead, dogs receive love, attention and similar relationship-based rewards.

This sort of relationship-based training works well specifically for 1Pet1Vet’s veterans. The PTSD experienced by veterans is about an injured sense of trust, according to Sanders, a Marine veteran who served for 20 years.

“In a lot of cases, with the military, there’s kind of a breaking of the trust between the member and the service, and we find that in almost everybody you meet that is diagnosed with PTSD. There’s this sense of mistrust, this sense of ‘I’m not safe,’” he explained. A veteran’s PTSD symptoms could worsen if they believe they have no one to feel safe around. And that’s where a service dog can bring comfort.

Dawn and Jake

“Jake grounds me when I’m really stressed out. I take him everywhere I go,” said Dawn Mattson. Mattson, of Wheaton, served in the US Army for seven years. She approached 1Pet1Vet on a friend’s recommendation. She then adopted her golden retriever, Jake, and they’ve become attached to one another.

She’s been with Jake for more than one year, and he’s the only animal in her life.

“He has given me a new sense of direction in life,” Mattson said.

Her statement rings true for many veterans who have been helped by 1Pet1Vet’s services.

Sharon and Jacques

In February 2017, Sharon Stephens, of Homewood, lost her pet dog to old age. At the time, she didn’t yet realize her dog was more of a service dog than an ordinary pet. She took him everywhere with her. So, when he passed away, she was left with an absence in her life. That’s when she approached 1Pet1Vet and inquired about getting a service dog.

Months later, Stephens and her new service dog, Jacques, get along great. The Standard Poodle, who’s about 1-year-old, is essentially a “furry child” to Stephens, a veteran who served about seven-and-a-half years in the US Army, including two deployments to Afghanistan. Just like any other child, Stephens’ new companion “tries my patience a lot,” Stephens said. “He’s very stubborn, but he’s very smart.” Despite Jacques’ teenage angst, he’s making a huge difference in Stephens’ life.

“He’s done a lot of wonders for me,” she said. “He really has.”

She takes Jacques with her everywhere, including stores such as the Barnes & Noble in Bourbonnais. Through Moran’s training, Stephens and Jacques are learning how to behave calmly and politely in public places. “One time, we went to Barnes and Noble,” Stephens explained, “and [Peggy] taught me how to get him to stop in an aisle, look left and right and make sure there were no carts or other people coming.”

With Jacques by her side, Stephens is finding herself able to do “normal” things that, at times, are devastatingly difficult for those with PTSD. “He’s done a lot for me as far as being able to go into crowded places again, just getting out and being social again,” she said.

Monica and Arya

Perhaps one of the biggest supporters of Peggy Moran’s School for Dogs is Monica Moran, Peggy’s daughter. She grew up attending Moran’s class sessions.

“When I was really young, I used to go to dog classes with my toy dog,” she admitted. She followed in her mother’s footsteps and began training animals professionally as a teenager.

Monica is another Moran who is highly experienced as a trainer and obviously passionate about animals — both Peggy and Monica are vegetarians. Monica has about 17 years of experience working with animals, including dogs and horses. She lives in Chicago and commutes to Manteno to work with clients (and visit the family). Alongside Peggy, she works closely with 1Pet1Vet veterans to ensure the veteran and dog are working together harmoniously.

Monica enjoys working with veterans with PTSD because she can relate to some of their struggles. Monica is diagnosed with nonmilitary PTSD.

“It’s not something I would’ve chosen or signed up for,” Monica said, “but it’s helped me to then pay it forward and help people.”

Monica’s service dog, Arya — named after the “Games of Thrones” character — holds a particularly special place in her heart. Peggy owns Arya’s mother, and Arya actually was born in Monica’s bedroom. Since Arya’s birth, Monica has felt a deep bond with her 5-year-old dog.

“She’s my little wolf,” she said.

The German Shepherd, who has uncommonly dark fur, certainly looks and behaves like a wolf. And just like any wolf, Arya is strong, intelligent and loyal to her pack.

“Animals provide a mirror for how we wish we were,” Monica said. “There’s none of the crappy parts of human interaction, and it’s just more pure.”

Animals, including service dogs, provide pure, unconditional love to people similar to Monica, Stephens and Mattson, who have experienced a traumatic event, leading them to mistrust their environment or even their own thoughts. PTSD is incurable, but it can be treated. Dogs such as Arya, Jacques and Jake provide unrivaled treatment.

Furry prescriptions

“Basically, these dogs are prescriptions,” Carlson said. And in some ways, dogs are maybe better prescriptions than the ones traditionally written by doctors. Medication is “a tool in your toolbox,” said Sanders, and it never will make symptoms go away “until you solve the emotional energy that is stored inside.”

While traditional therapy conducted with a licensed psychologist certainly can help those with PTSD, therapists might not necessarily be around to comfort an individual who is experiencing sudden symptoms at 3 a.m. A dog, however, always can be there.

Dogs aren’t just things we own for playing fetch or begging for treats. They’re “this little set of eyes and shagginess that looks back up at you and loves you,” and we can feel deeply comforted by the affection they give. They’re our friends, our therapists and, at times, they’re our rescuers.

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