Theo wakes me, for I don’t know, perhaps the fifth maybe sixth time over the course of the night. It’s easy to lose count. This time though, it is actually morning and the sun is shining through the blinds on the window; another night behind me, and another day in front of me. He lies down on my chest, his weight is comforting, and his breath gently blows across my neck, his head on my shoulder, his eyes watching me, as he patiently waits for me to come fully awake and I bury my hands in his fur.
This is a typical night for us, as my nights are often wracked with nightmares, too vivid to describe due to PTSD as a result of years of childhood sexual trauma and 18-years of domestic abuse while married. Theo wakes me each time that I am lost in a place and time from my past. Technically not flashbacks by definition, but I disagree with that medical thinking, if I wake still feeling hands on my body, smells in my nose, and the nightmare is as graphic as the day it happened, what else would it be called? A nightmare I can handle……….reliving the past, in detail as if it were happening once again, over and over and over can eat away at your soul. I do take medication to sleep or I wouldn’t sleep for several days before collapsing from exhaustion. There is a catch; the medication keeps me locked in a “nightmare” unable to naturally wake myself. Theo takes that job seriously. This is only one of nearly 100 tasks he has been trained to navigate as my service dog (SD), and the bond we have formed over the past 16-months together has become something as close to a miracle as I can imagine. In those 16-months we have only been apart for maybe five hours in total.
As fortunate as I feel every day to have been partnered with Theo, having a service dog comes with a huge commitment, personally and financially and is a load of responsibility. Best case scenario, this is a 10-15 year commitment, for the life of the service dog, they will retire with you and live their last years not as a working companion, but as a home companion. I am frequently asked by many advocates within the mental health community and the college disability offices about the realities of living with a service dog and where a client can apply for one. While a service dog is a good fit for many people, and many cases truly a gift and a life-saver, having a service dog is not a good fit for everyone.
Often I hear comments from people like “I wish I could bring my dog to school, work, the movies etc.” Or my favorite, “You are so lucky to bring your dog with you every day.” Really? I feel like asking if they would like to take my disability with them every day as well! However, that is a comment that I keep to myself and Theo. A typical day can be harder than most would expect.
Service dogs are not robots, they are not perfect. In the beginning this was exceptionally stressful. I thought in every situation Theo had to perform his tasks exactly, every time. In reality, they have bad days, off days, sick days and can make mistakes. A highly-trained service dog will perform well 98% of the time, but the other 2% can cause severe stress if you expect perfection, that is too much pressure for both you and your dog. I have witnessed a visually impaired dog, tempted by a bag of treats on the ground, walk his partner into a table nearly sending him head over heels, or veer toward Theo to say hello, causing confusion to his visually impaired partner. Theo once threw up in a restaurant, at an awards banquet, because someone fed him something under the table. I have missed class due to Theo being off a bit or ill. Once I released that unattainable expectation of perfection, it was much smoother sailing for Theo and me, but you have to understand that this will happen. You and your service dog may be judged by others. For people with PTSD, this can be a huge source of frustration.
I am solely responsible for his health, welfare, grooming and happiness. This comes at a significant cost and requires a daily time commitment. Theo must eat a prescription diet food to manage allergies he developed which is costly. His shots, heartworm, flea and tick management must be current and scheduled regularly, and emergency vet visits for any reason, again costly. Service Dog equipment is not cheap. Avoid the cheaply made gear, your partner will be wearing it for extended periods, and needs comfort. He is bathed weekly and groomed daily, which takes time. He has to be taken outside regularly throughout each day, even if it is -23 degrees, snowing, or raining. When out in public we have to find places for him to potty, this can be more challenging than you might imagine. For instance, caught in a long layover in an airport, at a special event, or in a work or school environment. Every event whether it is social or school, has to be planned ahead, for potty breaks for him, feeding times (take food and portable bowl with me) and water breaks (take water and portable bowl with me). I have to be aware of physical hazards for him (hot pavement, freezing temperatures on his paws, salted sidewalks, people and cars not seeing him, hazardous chemicals in and around the area we are in etc.). I have skipped events because it was not a good environment for Theo, he has been ill, or logistically not a good fit for a service dog. In addition, he has to be given down time to be free and have fun, play ball or just be a silly dog. They are, after all, flesh and blood and require not only care and maintenance but they also require emotional and physical interaction with their partners. So you cannot stay in bed all day, or work continuously and neglect their needs, both physical and psychological.
Having a service dog with you can be healing and helpful, but that comes with knowing that everything you do will be altered; you will have additional responsibilities. There is a significant time and financial commitment, you will be thrust into the spotlight every day and will have human interaction and you must stay healthy and aware. There is also a responsibility to conduct yourself in a manner that will be a positive reflection on the service dog community as a whole.
Recovery is a process and takes many, many steps. As with any injury or wound, trauma takes acceptance, understanding, lifestyle changes and a network of advocates, but mostly it take time. Getting a service dog is not a “fix all”, it comes with its own set of challenges, and there is a time during recovery where you may be ready for this step. I have seen the effect of taking on this responsibility before the time was right and the outcome was nothing less than tragic and heart wrenching.
When considering whether a service dog is right for you, write down your normal schedule, then in red ink write realistic expectations of having a K-9 companion with you 24/7. Figure in feeding, grooming, potty time and rest. Then write in blue ink the potential obstacles that can occur like climate changes or human interaction. Calculate the cost monthly and yearly; ask for help from a veterinarian with this if need be. Is this manageable? If you are seeing a therapist, ask their opinion, although some therapists are not well-versed yet on service dogs for PTSD, they can help determine whether you are in a good recovery place to take on something of this magnitude. Then consult with a service dog organization to determine whether your expectations are realistic. If all this sounds like too much work, then a service dog is not the correct choice for you. If all checks out, and you feel that getting a service dog is the correct option to proceed with your recovery, then research organizations, find the one with the best track record, this is imperative. No matter how badly you want a service dog, don’t take one because they are offering it to you. There are a great many unscrupulous organizations popping up, offering service dogs. I have seen a new veteran, with severe PTSD handed a 9-month old rescue dog, with 4-weeks of training claiming the dog was ADI certified. This dog, although friendly and sweet, would have barely passed a basic obedience test, and in my opinion, no way could have passed a public access test. This Marine was beyond frustrated when we first met. So be choosey and do your research.
In my next blog I will write about the benefits of being partnered with a service dog.
Positive light always,
Joey and Theo