I have decided to address this topic because I know I am not the only one who has had to deal with this. Deciding as a family that a service dog would be a good fit for us came only after doing a lot of research and asking a lot of questions. There are things that we needed to all agree on before setting out on this incredibly demanding journey.
One thing that my husband had a hard time at first understanding is why I would feel like I “needed” a service dog. It’s hard for a lot of my friends to understand because they aren’t inside my head. An example is my husband. When he is invited to a company party or picnic, he gets excited. He thinks about being able to socialize, getting to know his colleagues better, and being able to let loose with his friends. On the other hand, I am filled with anxiety and dread the entire time leading up to the event. When he is able to get me to go with him, I don’t want him to leave my side. I am so uneasy, anxious, and fearful of everything. I don’t like being in crowds because most of the time I think about how easy it would be for us all to die since we are so close together. I feel like a target.
I also feel incredibly inadequate because a lot of the people my age or the people who my husband spends time with, all have jobs or are doing something important. I can’t get past my Junior year of college because I keep having breakdowns. I try to keep in mind that I went off to the Air Force and that I really need to cut myself some slack, but it’s really hard when you can sense that people think you are either stupid or lazy because you don’t have a job or a degree in anything. I normally don’t mention that I was in the Air Force because then they will ask me what I did. I can’t say I did non-destructive inspection and leave it at that… 99.99% of people I say that to have NO clue what that is. Then people will usually ask me my view on the war. That is not something I ever answer. People want to know if I deployed and all the questions that go with it, “Did you kill anyone?” “Did you see anyone get killed?” or the comment that will light my fuse every time, “Well thankfully you were in the Air Force and never had to go to Iraq!” So basically, at these functions or parties, I hide in a corner somewhere. I don’t like people at my back, I want to see everyone in the room. I will always check for exits where ever I go, and I will never sit my back to the exit. These are some small things that I do that most people don’t take notice.
I explained to my husband that if I had a dog who if nothing else I can sit down and pet and pet and pet until it has a bald spot from my nervous petting, then I think I wouldn’t dread these events so much. I know what you are thinking, because my husband as well as everyone else has brought it up, why get a dog who will draw attention to me if I don’t like the attention or don’t want it. Here is how I look at it. I have three options. Option one: Sit home and be reclusive. Option two: Go and be a nervous wreck, avoid all conversation, try to avoid getting into a fight with anyone. Option three: Go there with my canine partner, attempt to make small talk (should be easy with a 60lb black lab) and know that if things get too intense for me, I have someone there who will ground me, make sure I’m okay, give me hugs and kisses or if I want, will roll around on the ground and play. Not only will the dog help calm me, it will force me to do something I find incredibly uncomfortable doing right now, which is slowly talk about my military background. I think the more I am able to talk about even the basics, the better my brain will be at filing it under “good” in the memory bank instead of “incredibly stressful, fearful and shame” that most of my military service is currently filed under.
We don’t need another “pet”. This is what one of the first reactions my husband had was. When I applied for Puppies Behind Bars, we had a Boxer named Harley (who is my baby and I’ve had since he was 4 months old and I was single), Oreo who was a pound rescue, and Bama who was a Great Dane that we were trying to keep. Those are just the dogs we owned. We have one indoor cat, Gracie (who had a leg amputated back in 2001), and outdoor cat MooMoo, two elderly rescue horses at the farm, and four barn cats. Two of the barn cats had been ran over by the tractor and were in my bathroom with three broken legs and rods between the pair. In case you ever wondered, barn cats are not good indoor cats! My husband was overwhelmed at the thought of bringing another mouth in the house to feed and he assumed he would have to take care of the service dog as well. I will have to give him credit here because he does do most of the work with the other animals. He cleans the cat box, was cleaning the back yard, feeding the horses, etc. I was happy if I brushed my hair and teeth twice a week when I was at a low point. Even my high points I still function probably below what everyone else does.
When it was looking like I may get approved for the dog, I really stepped up my desire to BE something every day. I started exercising Harley (he is about 5lbs over weight…), I took more interest in the care taking of the other animals. I worked and found homes for Oreo and Bama. Well, technically Oreo was on his way out before I applied for the service dog, I just had to wait for it to be cool enough to fly him to Colorado. I found a home for the Great Dane. I went outside when my daughter was sleeping and raked the whole yard, trimmed trees, cleaned out Oreo’s old dog house.. I just started CARING which is something I haven’t done in a while. The dog isn’t even here yet but I am already doing everything I can to prepare. I have seen a change in myself already.
During conversations with my husband, he brought up that we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere now because of the dog. He worried we wouldn’t be able to fly, go to the movies, go out to dinner. He assumed we would forever be home bound. What I did is I listened to all of his concerns and made it my mission to find the answers. Yes, we can fly with the dog, and no we didn’t need to buy a ticket for it. Yes we can go to the movies and out to dinner. I told him I felt it was unfair of him to have objections to being out in public with the dog when I was the one who would have to deal with the people. I felt that if this is something that I obviously put a lot of time and effort into researching, and I am still prepared to take it on, good or bad, then I felt it was selfish of him to say no.
With me spending so much time with the dog, my husband feared that I would care more about the dog than my family. I think it is common for a lot of spouses to initially feel threatened by the relationship the dog and handler are expected to have. My husband especially. He is a pharmacist. He is the one who can “make it all better” and I think maybe he felt like he was letting me down, or that my desire for the service dog was somehow indicating his failure somewhere as my husband. I tried to explain to him that if he could spend 24 hours a day 7 days a week with me holding my hand, if he could sense me starting to panic and gently rub my arm until I calmed down, if he would already be awake and looking at me at 2am when I wake up from a nightmare and stayed focused on me while I drifted back to sleep… If he could do all that and more, then no I wouldn’t need the dog.
A final point I would like to make, is that this is not a pet. There are places you can go to get a highly trained therapy dog who could do a lot of what this dog can do. If I felt that I would be better suited for a therapy dog then I would have applied somewhere for one. But when I make it all the way to where I need to be, but just can’t get out of my car out of fear, I know I need someone to be there with me, to assure me I am safe and that if anything bad happens, I will be able to leave. Therapy dogs are great. I remember being in the hospital and seeing one and just LOVED the idea of it. I think they are very helpful to people who need a good companion at home. But I need a dog who will work for me. This dog is part of my therapy. The more times I can go somewhere and not feel as stressed, the easier it will be the next time. It is called exposure therapy.
The problem with PTSD is that what doesn’t bother me today may bother me tomorrow if I come across a trigger in the mean time. I usually have a hard time with my anxiety when it is cold outside, or when I smell certain things. If I’m driving and if things start looking like the road in Iraq from Camp Sather to the Bob Hope, then I literally start drifting away in my mind and all I see is Iraq.
So my advice to a spouse of a PTSD or TBI veteran who is looking into a service dog is this: Be open and honest with your husband/wife about your concerns. Ask yourself if you are willing to do whatever it takes to stand by your veteran and help them along the journey to a better quality of life. Ask yourself if your objections are for personal reasons, or practical. Decide what is more important to you and what you would like to be able to enjoy with you spouse. There is no question that service dogs help lesson the effects of PTSD. There are studies that show an improvement in veterans and right now the DoD is financing a study on PTSD and service dogs.