Specially trained dogs provide solace, support for PTSD victims
Talon, a 6-month-old black lab, can flip a light switch with his nose.
While on Friday Talon was only doing this to get his treat, in his future home he’ll be turning on the lights to wake his owner from a nightmare.
Talon is training at Patriot Rovers, a foundation dedicated to training service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That’s when those guys start having flashbacks,” Dave Cantara, founder and co-chairman of Patriot Rovers, said of the night time terrors frequently seen with veterans suffering from PTSD. “The dogs are trained to wake them up, lick their face, turn on the lights and do a perimeter sweep of the room.”
Friday marked PTSD Awareness Day, defined as an anxiety disorder that occurs after an extreme emotional trauma that usually involves the threat of injury or death.
For many veterans, that can mean anxiety attacks, seizures, nightmares, and even suicidal thoughts.
There is no cure for PTSD, but there are therapy options. This is where Patriot Rovers comes in.
Cantara founded Patriot Rovers in 2010, and since then they have placed 76 dogs with veterans across the East Coast, from Maine to Florida.
An army veteran himself, Cantara is no stranger to tragedy. He’s attended numerous funerals for veterans he served with, some of them suicides. He’s also endured the deaths of his brother, first child, mother and father and the extended hospital stays of his second daughter and wife.
“Through all that, dogs were a constant in my life,” said Cantara, who has been training dogs since 1990.
Familiar with the therapeutic capabilities of canines, he decided to use it to help suffering veterans.
The dogs typically are trained in a 12-month program. As puppies, they learn basic obedience before they are spayed and neutered. They then progress to the canine Good Citizen Program, where they learn advanced obedience. The program, sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, is designed to reward dogs who have good manners at home and in the community.
Through the advanced obedience program, dogs are desensitized to sounds like thunder and airplanes, and they learn to remain calm while in crowded places like schools and malls.
Before they graduate, the dogs are certified by the Assistance Dogs International Standard. This includes the basic commands: sit, stay, come, heel, etc. But Cantara also instills a number of other skills in the dogs specific to assisting veterans.
One of the most important skills the dogs learn, Cantara said, is post-blocking.
“Once you’ve been blown up a couple times, you’re very edgy,” he said. The dog will create a barrier for the veteran. This prevents anyone from startling them from behind or the side.
Dogs for handicapped veterans also learn to help move wheelchairs and fetch things for their owners.
Cantara even trained a dog for a veteran that had suffered brain trauma and developed epilepsy. The dog recognizes the signals of a coming seizure, barks to warn his owner and breaks her fall. He will then press her life alert button and open the door for the EMTs when they arrive.
The dogs do not serve as a replacement for professional medical therapy but as a companion to it. Cantara said that most veterans suffering from PTSD are fine in their workplace and around others. It’s when they are alone that the trauma returns.
“Isolation is the devil’s playground, but the dog is there 24/7,” Cantara said.
While Patriot Rovers strives to help veterans today, it also honors those that have died. All of the dogs are dedicated to and given names in honor of service men and women who have died. Patriot Rovers connects the family of the deceased veteran with the dog’s new owner on the day of the dog’s graduation, bringing the process full circle.
Patriot Rovers currently has 60 dogs in training, but they have a waiting list of 80 veterans. What they don’t have is the money.
It costs thousands of dollars to buy, raise, feed and train the dogs, and Patriot Rovers relies entirely on public donations to function.
“There’s so much that goes into it,” Cantara said. “I haven’t had a vacation in five years. You have to work with them every day.”
Cantara said 22 veterans commit suicide every day. It is his mission to provide trained service dogs for veterans at risk and lower that statistic.
Want to help?
• Patriot Rovers relies entirely on donations. It is a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, and 95 percent of the funds raised go directly into the service dog fund.
• Patriot Rovers is hosting a fundraiser motorcycle ride Saturday, July 19, at 10 a.m. at Crescent Ford in High Point.
• Donations also can be sent to 8001 Clinard Farms Road, High Point, NC 27265.