It might be a tapping foot or a bouncing knee. It might be clenched fists, rocking or heavy breathing. The symptoms of rising anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares are as individual as the people feeling them.
We train our Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) service dogs to recognize the signs of anxiety in their veteran partners, and to interrupt them. Each dog from This Able Veteran is custom-trained as a partner for an individual veteran.
So, how do anxiety alerts work?
We learn a few things about each veteran that enters our program — what triggers anxiety, how do they act when depressed, do they have nightmares, what happens when they start to become anxious? And we know our dogs. They’ve already received extensive basic training and learned the early signs of anxiety in their human partners. Behaviors meant to interrupt the cycle of anxiety, fear or anger. When we pair them with a veteran, we’re looking to make a lifelong team. Let’s just say – it’s intense. But it’s nothing compared to what happens after graduation.
The veterans are learning about themselves in our Trauma Resiliency Program. They are learning coping skills, such as how to recognize early symptoms of anxiety and how to re-direct their attention. Their work with the dogs is team-building. Dogs are sensitive and attentive – often they see a panic attack coming before their human partners do. So we teach the dog to react to those signs, to tell their human, “Hey, I’m here, it’s ok, let’s go for a walk or you should pet me, let’s stay in the present.” That’s an anxiety alert. And we teach the veterans to understand what the dog is telling them, and to let the dog help them.
That might not sound like much if you’ve never experienced anxiety or panic attacks, if you’ve never been suicidal. But stopping that downward spiral – that’s huge. It’s a breath of air, it’s the space a veteran needs to regain control.
That’s what we want – for our veterans to regain control of their lives.
And it works. We have proof.