John Galambos has owned numerous dogs, but none was trained to have the specialized skills of his current Shih Tzu, Beau.
âI am a combat disabled veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from my service in Vietnam, and Beau is learning how to help me with emotional support,â said Galambos, of Griffith, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1965 to 1967. âFor instance, when I get upset, he senses it and jumps on my lap. On the Fourth of July, with all the fireworks going off, he gave me peace of mind. It meant the world to me.â
Beau, a rescue dog, is in training to become a certified service pet through the Roselawn-based Patriots Training Service Dogs, or PTSD. The nonprofit organization was founded by Charles Sargent, of Wheatfield, who, before his death in 2016, was very active with local veteransâ groups and causes. His wife Colleen continued PTSD, which trains dogs for Northwest Indiana military veterans at no cost. Sargent and her volunteers train a variety of dog breeds on a shoestring budget of donations and fundraising efforts.
âIt didnât cost me a dime,â Galambos told me. âBut too many veterans who desperately need a service dog donât know about this program.â
So far, seven dogs and their owners have completed the program, with three dogs expected to finish by next year.
âThe truth is that 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and we know we can change the lives of veterans through training their dog to be a service dog,â Sargent said. âThe volunteers and I all know that we are giving these veterans hope and guidance.
âFor those who gave it all for us, it is the least we can do for them,â she said.
The issue of training and providing service dogs for veterans is more controversial and complex than you might think. A preliminary study by Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine cites the crux of this issue: âPsychiatric service dogs are an emerging complementary treatment for military members and veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. Yet despite anecdotal accounts of their value, there is a lack of empirical research on their efficacy.â
For many years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has paid the veterinary care for service dogs assisting vets with physical disabilities, such as loss of sight or hearing or limbs. But the agency doesnât provide the same coverage for dogs that assist with PTSD, pointing to that lack of empirical evidence.
Congress ordered the VA to conduct a long-term $12 million study, tracking more than 200 veterans with PTSD and their service dogs, to determine the value of the relationship. The findings are likely years away.
The Purdue study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, concluded: âWe found that the group of veterans with service dogs had significantly lower levels of PTSD symptomology than those who did not have a service dog.â
âThey also had lower levels of depression, lower anxiety and increased social participation, meaning a willingness to leave their house and go engage with society in different activities,â said Maggie OâHaire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction.
Of the 141 veterans who chose to participate in the trial study, approximately half were on a wait list to receive a service dog while the rest already had one.
âAs the number of service dogs given to veterans with PTSD continues to increase, this is an important first step toward proof of concept that service dogs can actually provide measurable, clinical changes for veterans,â said Kerri Rodriguez, co-author of the study.
Supporters of this undeniable veteran-service dog emotional bond want the VA to reevaluate this contentious topic.
âI hope the promising results from this study will prompt a renewed focus on the benefits that service dogs provide,â said Steven Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, which co-funded the study.
These specialized service dogs can be trained to block the personal space between veterans and anyone unknowingly ambushing them with anxiety, and also to wake up vets during their nightmares, among other skills.
âIf veterans do not own a dog, we will help them find a dog to train,â Sargent said.
Her organization meets weekly with veterans for dog training, and the vets are expected to continue the training on their own.
âWe encourage record-keeping during the entire process,â Sargent said.
Her group provides all training equipment, and also registers each vet-dog team through the American Kennel Club for proper certification.
âThe veterans not only receive a certificate, but the satisfaction they experienced during the process of the training,â she said.
Her program works on basic obedience, including sit, down, and heel, as well as social behavior skills with strangers. Related skills depend on each veteranâs specific needs and struggles.
âFor example, a dog can be taught how to apply pressure to help calm the veteran,â Sargent said.
The programâs most pressing needs are financial donations, dog-friendly volunteers, and a more permanent location to conduct the training. Volunteers are currently training dogs at the Stoney Run Canine Camp in Hebron.
âWe are in need of an indoor location in the Lowell or Crown Point area,â Sargent said.
This is why Galambos, a member of Disabled American Veterans, reached out to me. He insisted this column shouldnât be about him, but about all the veterans who donât know about PTSD.
âNot about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of us know about that,â he said. âThey need to know about Patriots Training Service Dogs. This program is for them.â
For more information on Patriots Training Service Dogs, call (219) 819-1295 or visit http://patriotstrainingservicedogsinc.weebly.com.