Nina, a Labrador retriever/Australian shepherd mix, resolutely lay unmoving on the floor of the K9 Coaches training room in Berea as Lisa Slama walked back and forth, inches from the dog, bouncing what should have been an irresistible rubber ball.
Pong! The ball hit the floor and soared tantalizingly high. Every instinct in the dog was probably screaming “Get it!” But Nina didn’t.
Pong! So near, so much potential fun. Most dogs would’ve had that ball in their teeth in a heartbeat. But not Nina.
It is because Nina is being trained as a psychiatric service dog in a new program, Veteran’s Best Friend, that matches dogs with military personnel coping with the debilitating effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The project started earlier this year after Frank DeLorenzo — who works with the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program at the Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center — contacted Slama about training his dog, Nina, to help DeLorenzo cope with the PTSD and TBI resulting from being wounded in Iraq in 2004.
“Medication wasn’t working for me, and I was looking for a different source for dealing with my issues,” he said.
He found Slama, the owner/trainer of K9 Coaches, after researching the growing use of dogs in a role similar to service dogs for the physically impaired.
Congress is considering a Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act which would create a pilot program administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs for training dogs to help veterans suffering from post-deployment mental health problems.
According to DeLorenzo, the support provided by a psychiatric service dog largely involves emotional reassurance.
Nina can sit facing him, checking for anyone coming up behind him, nudging him if someone is. Wake him when he starts tossing and turning from nightmares and flip on the light. Remind him come medication time, which coincides with her feeding times. Or simply be there for comfort, laying her head in his lap when she senses he has a panic attack or flashback coming on.
DeLorenzo described Nina as a tool, “not a crutch,” and a resource that he hopes will help reduce his use of PTSD medications.
A psychiatric service dog makes a veteran “responsible for something else, which they need so they don’t self-destruct,” he said.
Through DeLorenzo, now co-coordinator with Slama of Veteran’s Best Friend, five other veterans are training with dogs in the program. Three vets are waiting to get dogs from Slama, who is also founder/president of the Middleburg Heights Animal Foundation, a charity that finds homes for pets.
Not every dog makes a good psychiatric service dog.
“It comes down to temperament, personality and workability,” Slama said. “We’re looking for dogs that are very adaptable to new settings, and are good with a variety of people.
“They need to be a lot more personable in terms of bonding,” she added, “because they’re also going to be watching for emotional changes, not just picking up whatever I drop or opening a door.”
Slama said the once-a-week training, starting initially at K9Coaches in Berea, begins with the basics — using voice and visual cues, backed by treats for positive reinforcement, for such commands as “sit,” “stay,” and “leave it.”
From there, the dog and handler move to such tasks as “front” — sitting and checking for people coming up behind a handler. Or “under” — crawling beneath a seat; say at a restaurant, workplace or airplane. The training also can include visits to a mall, the VA medical center and other places a veteran routinely goes.
The length of instruction can depend on the number and type of goals a veteran sets, and how comfortable the dog and handler are with the training. “It could be a year, it could be three years,” said Slama, who hopes in the future to have the more experienced veterans work with the novices.
Veteran’s Best Friend was created as part of Middleburg Heights Animal Foundation, and is entirely supported by tax-deductible donations. There is no expense to the veteran beyond basic dog care costs. Slama estimates that a typical training time period could cost about $1,600.
The dogs wear a service vest, which acts as a cue to the dog that it’s time to go to work. “When the vest comes off at home, she’s a normal dog,” DeLorenzo said.
According to Slama, veterans in the program are sometimes greeted with curiosity by people who see the service dog but no obvious disability in the handler.
But she noted these encounters can provide an opportunity for a little public education about psychological disabilities and the dogs.
Public exposure also is helping Army veteran Margaux Vair, 26, of Kent, deal with people, primarily due to her service dog, a Siberian Husky appropriately named Mush.
She said it’s the last thing she wants to do, but the one thing she needs to do as part of coping with PTSD/TBI issues resulting from her deployment in Iraq.
“I had distanced myself and secluded myself. I wanted to push people away,” she said. “I don’t like being in the spotlight but that’s what the dog brings. Because she is a Husky and very pretty, everybody wants to pet her. What’s happening is that people are coming up and talking to me, and it’s helping with my confidence.
“She’s making me face my fears,” Vair added. “She’s training me more than I’m training her.”