Canine Calmers

Written by Amanda Kippert Category: Valley News Issue: January 2016
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Service dogs can work wonders for PTSD sufferers, but a confusion in terms is causing problems.

Tanks loaded with machine guns, landmines ready to explode, the enemy lying in wait around every corner – these images once flooded David Campbell’s dreams.

Photo by Kaitlyn Ahrbeck; David Campbell  with his dog, Caleb

The veteran U.S. Army combat engineer, who spent nine months in Iraq during the first Gulf War and nearly died in an explosion that left him in a coma for three days, was diagnosed with severe PTSD after his discharge in 1992. For 20 years, the Chandler resident self-medicated the only way he knew how. “I started drinking every night,” Campbell says. “I would drink so I would pass out... so if I had nightmares, I wouldn’t remember them when I woke up.”

It was a bad strategy, Campbell admits. “It got worse the longer I ignored it, like a bomb inside you that’s going to explode someday.”

Three years ago, Campbell’s left leg had to be amputated below the knee, the long-term consequence of a car accident some 12 years prior, when he was rear-ended by a vehicle traveling at almost 80 miles per hour. His bones never healed. Doctors said they were in a state of deterioration, most likely an after-effect of mustard gas exposure in Iraq. Today, he can walk with the assistance of a prosthetic limb, but doctors say his other leg and both of his arms, below the elbow, may also need to be amputated, unless a cure for his deterioration is found.

While news like that could have broken his spirit further, Campbell says it was the impetus for change. He quit drinking and found religion. And, a year ago, he adopted Caleb, a 2-year-old Australian shepherd mix with fluffy black fur, a happy-go-lucky disposition and concerned eyes.

Caleb is one of the hundred or so dogs that Soldier’s Best Friend, a Peoria-based nonprofit, has adopted, trained and placed since it was founded in 2011 by veterinarian John Burnham. Most of the dogs come from local rescues or shelters, and are placed in a foster home for evaluation for up to a month before being given to a veteran with PTSD or traumatic brain injury. The duo then spends six to nine months with a trainer, who helps the veteran teach the dog basic obedience commands, how to behave in public, and special tasks, like helping to balance a veteran with an unsteady gait or to be a source of calming energy when anxiety rears its ugly head.

Traumatized police officers can also benefit from service dogs – but may lack the legal protections to make use of them. Phoenix Police Department detective Scott Sefranka, who was shot in the line of duty in 2013 and suffers from PTSD, recently acquired a service dog named Bigby to help him return to work and function more normally. But the city’s human resources department won’t allow Sefranka to bring Bigby – who was, at press time, in certification training with the Arizona-based Foundation for Service Dog Support – into the field with him. “I can still go to work with Bigby, but I’m not allowed to carry my gun and badge,” Sefranka says, adding he wasn’t given a specific justification. “They just say it’s a paperwork issue.”

Service dogs are different from therapy dogs – which are the ones that go into hospitals to help patients or that provide comfort in nursing homes. Service dogs, under the ADA, must be allowed to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of any facility where the public is normally allowed to go. Sefranka says the HR representative who contacted him referred to Bigby as an “emotional-support dog” and told Sefranka that, for his particular “mood issues,” the department may need to seek alternative treatments.

By the numbers

“It feels very minimalizing and dismissive,” Sefranka says, adding that it’s a lack of education that leads people to the misconception that the dogs are only there as a furry source of comfort. In truth, service dogs can help perform all sorts of helpful tasks.

One thing Campbell is working on training Caleb to do is wake him up from PTSD nightmares by licking his face or nudging him. He’s still getting the hang of it. But, remarkably, something else has happened: Caleb is showing up in Campbell’s nightmares. “I see him and ask, ‘What do you want, boy?’” Campbell says. “It takes all my focus off the negative and onto the positive. You can’t train that.”

Burnham began Soldier’s Best Friend after seeing firsthand the effect dogs had on his veteran clients after they would return from war. “I could see this really intense bond they had,” Burnham says.

Simultaneously, he was looking for a way to give back. After his father, a veteran who fought in the Pacific, passed away, he says it clicked – a way to honor veterans and help with the overpopulation of shelters. “It’s been an extremely fulfilling and heartwarming experience. It has helped me give back to those who have given so much for us.”