Estimating the number of military veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder is challenging. The State Department of Health says there are anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 Hoosier veterans who would benefit from treatment. An emerging treatment getting some attention in Indiana - service dogs.
Some combat service members return home with injuries, and some of those injuries are harder to see.
"It doesn’t matter what conflict it was, we’re all dealing with the same issues. We don’t like to admit it.I didn’t," says a U.S. Army veteran, who lives in Shelbyville, Indiana with his wife. He asked that we not use his name.
His service dog is Reka, a 20-month-old golden retriever – lab mix. She sits quietly next to him throughout the interview.
"Right now, she’s sitting on my feet because she knows I’m kinda anxious and nervous," he says.
Reka is trained to the recognize symptoms of PTSD and help alleviate anxiety. He says she has a calming effect, especially when the nightmares start.
“She will wake me up when I’m having nightmares. She will start from my shoulders and will go down and back up again ‒ poking with her nose and looking at me,” he says. “And when I tell her, ‘It’s OK girl. I’m OK,’ she will go back in her place and lay back down.”
Maggie O’Haire is an assistant professor at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Her studies of human-animal interaction leads research on service animals.
“We know individuals with PTSD who have had military trauma are seeking out service dogs,” O’Haire says. “Some of the things they are looking for are kind of a way for the dog to reduce their anxiety.”
This rings true for the Indiana veteran.
“It seems like if I’m in a crowd ‒ like if I’m sitting down and I’m around a bunch of people ‒ that bothers me and she will get up and basically with a command vest, she will put her head on my lap where I can start petting her and kind of relax and forget about the people around me,” he says.
Reka is one of eight America’s Vet Dogs currently working with Hoosier veterans. They were born on a 10-acre campus in Smithtown, New York.
“We have our training facility here and when we have a veteran who is in need of a service dog, we match them up with a dog that will fit their needs.” says Marketing Director Andrew Rubenstein, speaking from his office in Smithtown. “Each dog is custom trained to meet whatever disability and to help mitigate whatever disability they have. So there is no cookie-cutter process.”
The puppies are trained by prison inmates in facilities throughout the East Coast. It costs more than $50,000 to breed, raise and train just one service dog. And they are given to a veteran at no cost.
The process of matching a dog and a veteran can take some time. For Reka and her Indiana veteran it took two years, but he says it was worth the wait.
"This organization is like the Red Cross. You know who and what it affects. And it affects more than just the veteran’s life, the wife, the families,” he says, “because the veterans can start doing things more with the family because of the service dog."
The veteran says Reka has made it possible for him to have a decent life.