When Tony Tengwall returned from deployment in Baghdad with the Minnesota Army National Guard in 2005, he struggled to readjust to civilian life.
Tengwall got a job and went back to school, but it was “tougher than it should have been,” he said. He was losing touch with family and friends. He didn’t socialize.
It wasn’t until he started working with other veterans that he noticed similar traits: anxiety, frustration.
“It helped me understand that there are things not working here,” he said. It was post-traumatic stress disorder.
A colleague, who also works with veterans, saw how Tengwall would interact with one of her foster dogs, Fitz. The 4-year-old English cocker spaniel would calm Tengwall and “brought him to the present,” said Lauri Brooke, a county veterans service officer in Becker County.
“Fitz had the ability to immediately calm Tony down,” Brooke said. “It was really amazing.”
Fitz is a psychiatric service dog who has helped Tengwall, 35, a veterans service officer in Anoka County, with his PTSD. The pup, who also goes to work with Tengwall, provides the same comfort to other veterans when they visit the office.
“I haven’t had an angry vet since I got Fitz,” he said. “They come in, sometimes angry, sit down and start petting him. And then their mood completely changes.”
“People remember me as the guy with the dog,” Tengwall said.
Tengwall has seen a huge difference in himself, as well.
“It started with the little things,” he said. Fitz got him out of the house for exercise and conversations with neighbors.
Fitz can predict Tengwall’s mood shifts. If Tengwall starts to feel road rage, for example, Fitz puts his head on Tengwall’s shoulders, as if to say “Hey buddy, calm down,” Tengwall said.
“I don’t realize I’m getting worked up until I look down and see Fitz there,” he said.
Tengwall served 11 years with the Minnesota Army National Guard and was in Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom for about a year. The hardest time for him, he said, was when his unit deployed and he was back home, no longer in the service.
“I wanted to be there … it was more difficult for me being back here,” he said.
When he started working with the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, he met and worked with county officers and other veterans. That’s when he met Brooke, who was fostering dogs at the time. Brooke’s daughter trains service dogs for veterans through K9s for Warriors in Florida.
When Tengwall visited Brooke, she saw something special.
“Fitz bonded immediately with Tony,” Brooke said. “We saw a difference on how Tony acted, too.”
The dog was trained for a few months before going to Tengwall on Valentine’s Day 2012.
Fitz is a social butterfly, Brooke said. He is always running around, checking on people as they walk through the veteran services door in Anoka.
“He is able to pick out a person in a room who needs him the most,” Tengwall said.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s first piece of legislation in Congress was the Service Dogs for Veterans Act. This bill paired about 200 veterans with service dogs that help them mentally or physically. Most veterans cannot afford service dogs. The cost to train each one and place it with the proper veteran is about $25,000.
But the benefits, Brooke said, are great. She has seen firsthand what they can do for people like Tengwall.
“The Tony Tengwall I first met and the Tony Tengwall now are completely different people,” Brooke said. “The Tony after Fitz is a much calmer, happier person.”