The Econofoods supermarket seemed like a good test for both Claire and Kristian. For Claire, an enthusiastic but easily distracted service dog in training, it was a chance to practice focusing in the stimulating environment along the produce aisles and past the Miracle Whip display. For Kristian Gaasland, an Army veteran whose time in Iraq has left him with chronic migraines and acute anxiety, it was a time to be in a place he normally would avoid: a store crowded with shoppers in the middle of the day. “I don’t like going shopping during the day because there’s people. With her, it’s an extra set of eyes,” he said.
The exercise was tenuous for both of them, with tangled leashes and mixed signals. But that is the point of the protracted training to match service dog with needy veteran. Trainers from a new organization called Believet Canine Service Partners were there to gently correct their mistakes.
The use of service dogs has been well-established for people with visual, hearing, or physical disabilities, but the idea that service dogs can provide comfort to veterans and others with psychological issues still has hurdles to overcome.
“What we are hoping to do is document what most people know from common sense: that animal-assisted activities are good for people who are suffering from trauma,” said Steve Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative, a pet industry-funded nonprofit that supports scientific studies and education on human relationships with animals.
The VA currently funds service dogs only to vets with physical illnesses or injuries. It has contended there wasn’t enough clinical research to support their use for vets with psychological issues such as the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Research on the subject does have a checkered past. U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s first piece of legislation in the Senate was a bill requiring the VA to study the effect dogs have on veterans’ lives, including therapeutic benefits, whether the dogs reduce the cost of hospital stays and help prevent suicides.
But the study was suspended in 2011 after two dogs bit children of handlers. The following year it was stopped again after concerns were raised about how the dogs were trained and cared for. The VA resumed a three-year study earlier this year.
In addition, a researcher at Purdue University is conducting a study on the effects of trained service dogs on reducing medication levels, lowering stress and improving the quality of life for post-9/11 veterans with PTSD.
“While there are many organizations out there who are dedicating themselves to helping veterans, the best way to make sure that every veteran who really needs this kind of help gets it is to ultimately change the rules at the VA,” Feldman said.
Just last week, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs updated its policy to broaden allowing service dogs at VA facilities.
A new mission in life
Northfield-based Believet was started in January to provide trained assistance dogs, free of charge, to disabled veterans.
It is the brainchild of businessman and U.S. Army veteran John Sinning and Sam Daly, whose career until now has focused mostly on training dogs for hunting. He has been a breeder of Labrador retrievers and an American Kennel Club hunt test judge.
After two assignments in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor training Marines and military dogs to detect explosives, Daly came home with a new mission in life: to help military veterans like the Marines he met in Afghanistan.
“That was really a life-changing experience, the fun and games were over, this is life and death,” he said. “We are longtime dog trainers, short-time military support people.”
Daly said there are at least 21,000 veterans within a 250-mile radius of Northfield who suffer from PTSD. At its peak, he said he hopes Believet can deliver 23 to 25 dogs a year.
He has converted a portion of his kennels outside of town into a makeshift apartment for training, with a bed and furniture. A large American flag hangs from one wall. The dogs come from shelters or are donated, and they are selected not by breed but by physical skills, their ability to learn and their disposition. Training can take between 12 and 18 months and cost around $30,000 per dog.
During their training, the dogs are taught to retrieve a crutch or close a drawer. They are taught to ignore the temptations of food on the floor and to focus instead on their partner’s needs and commands.
They are also trained to rest their heads firmly on the laps of their partners during times of anxiety, allowing time for a gentle calming pat. They recognize when their partners are having nightmares and pull the blankets off to wake them.
They also learn how to be a reassuring presence during a high-stress situation.
Like with Claire and Gaasland in the supermarket.
‘Covering your six’
At one point inside the store, trainer Daly ordered Claire, a one-year-old lab/cattle dog mix, to “cover.” With only a little hesitation, she moved behind Gaasland to protect his flank. In the military, it is a move known as “covering your six,” referring to the six o’clock position on a clock. She literally had her partner’s back. Daly used a small clicker to alert her that she had done well and then offered her a treat. She eagerly accepted.
Despite her eagerness to please, Claire has a long way to go before it’s clear that she and the 31-year-old Gaasland will be a match. She’ll be in a foster home for several months and continue her training. Daly thinks Claire, who was obtained from a Waseca shelter, will be good for Gaasland, who could benefit from her social nature and active disposition. But there are no guarantees.
For a man who said he once awoke from a nightmare brandishing a loaded gun at his parents, Gaasland, too, has realistic expectations.
“I don’t have big goals for having the dog,” he said. “But whether it’s taking the dog for a walk and meeting my neighbors, this will at least get me out.”