I had an amazing conversation with Bart Sherwood of TADSAW (Train a Dog, Save a Warrior) in San Antonio, Texas, and his words were so clear that I wanted to write them down before I forgot them. Bart has an amazing way of putting things, and as he said, the more we can share, the more veterans' lives we can save. In his words, if organizations are in competition, it's a competition to save as many lives as possible. My notes:
- Dogs live in the now and so they are ideal for helping veterans notice their emotional and physical state. Dogs aren't involved too much in thinking about the past or future, so if they are nicely bonded to the hander, they notice what is happening at the moment it happens, rather than the human's usual state of mind, which is rarely on what is happening at the moment.
- The service dog model is an interesting one because it focuses on tasks. For veterans with PTSD, the task seems to involve emotions, but in fact, the task is a physical one. A task may be "Watch My Six" (sit behind me so people don't come up from behind unexpectedly, but one of the more powerful tasks is also physical: noticing the dog reacting to the handler when cortisol rises, thus indicating an upcoming panic attack or event. This act is often termed "Animal Assisted Therapy" because the handler is noticing the dog's reaction to the handler's emotional and physical state, thus allowing the handler to short-circuit the rising agitation. If the handler can stop this rising agitation before it spirals out of control, the handler never has to enter the threshold of the red-zone of a full-blown panic attack. This service dog model uses therapy to defuse the situation, so it's easy to confuse it with "therapy dog" work, but the therapy is not for others, but instead, used by the veteran to empower themselves.
- With this model, it's important that the handler be trained on how to read the body language of their service dog. It's not just about training, although that is important (for instance, passing the Public Access Test). Being able to read the dog means that the veteran is, through Animal Assisted Therapy, learning to read themselves.
- One of the many reasons to use positive reinforcement when training is that the dog needs to be encouraged to offer behaviors. If the dog only knows how what has been specifically trained, and punished for anything else, they won't, for instance, place a paw on the handler's foot when the dog notices the handler's blood pressure rising, heartbeat increasing, and rate of breathing increase. This act becomes an alerting behavior, which can be rewarded, thus setting the dog on the path to becoming a medical alert dog.
- Of course, it's important that the right dog be chosen for this partnership. If the dog is genetically predetermined to focus outwardly, perhaps on prey animals or on protecting one from other people, that dog won't be nearly as helpful for service dog work as a dog who has the genes that encourage focusing on the person. Of course, genes are only one piece of the puzzle because the genes must be activated from the environment (for example, during a puppy's critical socialization period).
- Bart mentioned a useful way of thinking about facilities in that since the world is where the veteran lives, that's where the dog needs to train. Training in a facility day after day is of limited use compared to what the dog learns in the real world (and how the dog can learn to generalize what they have previously learned, applying these lessons around new distractions). He applauded our new pilot program of self-training, which he calls "Participant Trained Service Dogs" (PTSD), as opposed the battle so many veterans face (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Terrific YouTube video explainer from TADSAW (Train a Dog, Save a Warrior):
My favorite quotes? I'm paraphrasing, but basically:
- "The military teaches how to kill, now veterans need to learn how to live."
- "We're all Americans, not Ameri-can't."
- Participant trained service dogs have a "special sauce" (the veteran). Veterans joined the military with commitment and enthusiasm, and the veterans themselves are what makes service dog programs work so well.
- A service dog first helps one veteran, then one family, then one neighborhood, then one community.
- An infantryman had a job, and now they have another one: service dog handler.
Bart's given me a lot of food for thought. Such a gift! Thank you!