Tom's Story

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"I am a Navy Vet with 14 years of active duty service. I also have PTSD and a bipolar disorder. From about 2013 with the Boston Marathon through to the shootings in San Bernardino in 2015, I began to feel more and more irrational anxiety and by 2016 it became intolerable. I sought the help of a very skilled therapist and adopted a dog named Canyon. Both were critical to my recovery. The therapist peeled back old scars and memories and found that I had some unresolved issues with a direct experience of terrorism while in the military. He was able to help me look at those memories a much more calmly and much less judgmentally of my immediate reactions to that moment. I discovered that as acts of terrorism had been occurring in our country and accidentally moving closer to my home, I could no longer ignore my old memories of a horrific day in the military.

Canyon was the other half of the solution that helped me regain control over my ongoing PTSD. I am told that PTSD never really goes away, it is in a sense a scar that partially heals but never truly disappears. So I need Canyon to help me through today and tomorrow. If my stress level gets too high, I can lose consciousness and find myself immersed in the past. If a human tries to gently shake my shoulder to try to pull me back into the real moment, then there is a real risk that I could misinterpret that gesture as a threat because the story playing out in my head isn't gentle at all. But if Canyon licks my hand or face there is very little chance of me confusing that with an attack. Its probably just a dog licking my face, in fact, MY dog. Canyon has licked my face in a bad moments and it immediately brought my mind back to the present. Another typical symptom of PTSD is antisocial behavior, withdrawing from interaction. It is actually uncomfortable for me to do something as simple as buy groceries alone. I would never really be directly thinking about trauma in a grocery store, I just felt "vulnerable" and uneasy. I would avoid eye-contact, get my groceries and get out as quickly as I could. I had an imaginary wall around myself while in public. That's not allowed when you have a dog, especially my dog, Canyon. People love dogs and many want to compliment you on your dog, talk about their dogs and some even want to pet him. Canyon loves the attention and even invites the attention by making eye-contact and wagging his tail.

 

I simply can't avoid chatting with people in the store. I quickly realized what a gift Canyon was giving me; he was gently forcing me to relax and interact with my neighbors, so now I do and I am glad of it. Canyon also needs as much as I do. Its not a one-way street. He needs fresh water, attention, playtime, food, grooming, treats, walks, toys, baths, a place to relieve, etc. I think he needs something about every 30 mins through the day. Usually something simple like fresh water or a belly rub. So I can't get "stuck in my head" as easily. I need to look out for my partner who is looking out for me. I can't just look at my environment and think about how it impacts me, I have to think about its impact on Canyon, too. That's not a burden, its a blessing. I have to see the world through both of our eyes and that is very grounding, steadying. I can't ask Canyon to step out onto black pavement in 110 degree weather, he'll immediately burn his feet. I need to think ahead and put his shoes on. Every time I reach for a bottle of water I need to think about the last time Canyon had water. The world affects both of us differently and having him next to me makes my personal concerns seem a little less serious because his experience of that very same moment is so very different. Your own worries suddenly seem so less meaningful, when you see your canine partner ignoring the nightly news and asking you to toss his ball. Canyon is constantly reminding me that we choose what we pay attention to, and he can usually find the funner thing to investigate.

 

All of our emotions involve chemicals in our bodies: adrenaline, oxytocin, endorphins, etc. Those chemicals are apparent to the nose and taste buds of dogs. Canyon can check my mood by tasting my perspiration on my hand or smelling very subtle body odor changes. Dogs actually can "smell fear" and a host of other moods. I've learned to trust his intuition and do a quick self check of my mood whenever he seems to be paying undue attention to me. He's usually right and he's ready to comfort or distract me. There are a hundred other ways a dog can help with PTSD. These were just a few. Custom Canines has been so helpful with guiding Canyon and I through our training that we intend to keep attending as many training sessions as we can. Canyon and I got our certification in Feb 2017, but we intend to keep learning and getting better at helping each other."

Tom and 'Canyon'