“PTSD & C-PTSD can affect anyone who has been exposed to trauma – an event or events which provoked fear, helplessness, or horror in response to the threat of injury or death and therefore can affect anyone.” - PTSDUK.org
Written by Rie Carter; current client of Adolescent Dogs
For decades I watched my father go through Post Traumatic Stress after fighting in the Vietnam War, and sadly he never opened up about what he was feeling or what he experienced. He fought his fight alone for decades. In the years since his passing I’ve had my own diagnosis of C-PTSD, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which came from multiple life threatening instances. PTSD isn’t something I’d ever thought I’d be writing about, but it was finally time to get help, start healing parts of my mind I didn’t think I could, and it came in the unlikeliest of places, Dog Training. This is how we got there.
For context, I think many of us are used to seeing PTSD stigmatized in TV shows and movies, seemingly we have become the butt of jokes or that somehow we are violent in nature, but what the public doesn’t know about PTSD is how the condition affects not only the mind but can change physical aspects inside of the brain and body. The condition can affect each person differently, for some it can be debilitating.
There are many avenues for help with PTSD/C-PTSD, my personal unintentional favourite being through our dog, Pumpkin. Typically for those with PTSD CBT and EMDR therapies are what work for certain cases, but for myself neither were helpful and before Pumpkin came into my life psychotherapy was my only near-by option. I have not been able to live a normal life since my last life threatening experience as it is still in a sense ongoing, so my husband was determined to find an avenue to help me.
In the only talk he and I had with my dad about PTSD he expressed his want of a PTSD dog who would be able to help mitigate some of his symptoms, a thought that escaped my memory. My husband had the idea of introducing another dog into the household as we’re both keen dog people, but he wanted me to research first and see if we could possibly train a dog to help mitigate some of my own symptoms.
I could no longer leave the house and go outside, my biggest fear was of crowded places. I’d be left alone for much of the day and I would “blackout” only to come around and find self harm marks on my arms and legs that I have no recollection of doing.
My world was of fear, of people, of myself and of being alone, but my husband saw a potential outlet for me to have a companion that may one day help me on my journey to healing. Our family needed to be on the same page so we utilized PTSDUK to gain some answers as to what was happening to me mentally and physically, and in our discussions about task mitigating dogs, I noticed that there was no PTSD specific dog training available in the UK that wasn’t for First Responders or Veterans.
We opted to try looking into local training and watch Youtube videos for inspiration instead and hoped to gain knowledge for task mitigation that way. (The issue with online videos seems to be that dogs already know the task that the trainers are showing so you more often than not are watching an already trained dog complete a task, rather than going through step by step. It always felt like you were watching the perfect standard of what your dog should be like from the start.)
When Pumpkin came home at 8 weeks she was a whirlwind of energy, as Golden Retrievers are, and the house once again filled with laughter and joy. She quickly became my companion, and while she didn’t understand much when it came to how the world worked I knew she needed a thorough introduction to many things through desensitisation.
Our local dog trainer was starting a therapy program so we enrolled ourselves into that along side her foundational puppy classes and it gave me an outlet to interact with Pumpkin in a safe environment as well as meet other local dog owners. I wasn’t the only person in the class wanting to have a dog for mitigating symptoms that we experienced on a daily basis.
Another fortunate instance was my therapist used to breed and train show dogs and so decided to utilize Pumpkins existence in the household with assisting me with overcoming some of my own fears by using her as an example of how the human mind works. The more I identified what made Pumpkin anxious and how I was able to teach her how to over come those fears with slow and careful introductions and training, the more I became confident in how to train myself to get through my own anxieties. One example was, as someone who suffers from the fear of the outdoors, every day I was to take Pumpkin for a walk down the street and only go one step farther than the day prior. If I wasn’t comfortable or confident with that one extra step we went back to a comfortable distance - much like how it’s the same with a dog. If they’re not comfortable or understanding of a particular task you break it down into small steps to help them until they understand the exercise and overcome their anxieties.
The more time Pumpkin and I worked together the more I was understanding what was happening to me scientifically.
During our puppy classes I knew that one of the things I struggled with was my short term memory, I have had a few traumatic brain injuries so retaining information and learning can be difficult.
I can have an exercise shown to me and quickly forget a few seconds later all of the vital parts of what I needed to do, a difficult mix when my motor functions become impaired when I begin to stress.
I stumbled across a famous Online Training company with its online community that coincided with what we were taught in Puppy Classes just so I could keep up and not fall behind, partly because I was too afraid to admit that I couldn’t remember tasks and cues, and never had the guts to ask if I could record our sessions. I always felt shame from wanting to ask questions because I would become nonverbal when finally faced with an opportunity in person, which was no fault of our lovely local trainer. I’m a professional when it comes to nodding my head in agreement and blurting out “Yep, I understood that,” even if I didn’t.
The training style was right, positive reinforced games based training was what I could follow, however inside this particular online community it didn’t feel right for us. I had questions but I felt like no one had answers for me and if I struggled it felt like I struggled alone. Trainers didn’t take time to respond and it was the community that would give their two cents which felt like too many cooks in the kitchen with their own ideas of what you were doing right, or more often than not, what you’ve done wrong with no constructive criticism, I stopped posting in that community.
One day decided to search for “PTSD” just to see if anyone had mentioned it before in that group and to my surprise a photo of a dog with a vest came up, but I wasn’t familiar with the logo on it.
“Adolescent Dogs” - Was it just for dogs during adolescence? Who are these trainers and what do they do? Curiosity got the better of me and I searched for the AdolescentDogs website. I saw not only an Online Academy but an area called “Assistance Dogs.” I never bothered looking into that as an option because I wasn’t “disabled” in the eyes of my family, I have psychiatric issues along with mobility problems but surely I’d never qualify. Maybe it was “imposter syndrome” that got the better of me, but then I found the “Members Page.”
Autism, ADHD, POTS, and finally PTSD/C-PTSD, words I never thought I’d see associated with an assistance dog. Suddenly I had the realization that my dad having wanted a dog to help mitigate tasks would have been a “PTSD Assistance Dog”. It was a personal “Ah-Ha” moment where I realised Psychiatric Assistance Dogs were a possibility, and a new found phrase of “Owner Training.” There were people inside of this academy that were like me so I looked into what went into joining, the kind of tasks that Adolescent Dogs could help teach. In that moment I felt like I finally found what I was looking for.
I didn’t want anyone to judge me if I attempted to join, and to be honest the worst that could have happened would be told “No, you’re not allowed here,” something that would have felt all too familiar.
One of the requirements was needing a physical written diagnosis from my local GP and potentially one from my therapist, so before Christmas I decided to get the ball rolling and give it a shot. My GP was on board thinking it would be a great outlet for me, and my therapist agreed that I should at least try.
One of the best days we had was when we had our e-mail, we had been accepted into the Adolescent Dogs Assistance Program, it felt like it could be the start of a new life for the pair of us as I took my training with Pumpkin very seriously. I brought her into my world and I needed to ensure I gave her the best care because one day I’d hopefully be able to depend on her.
The head trainer Jenny and her husband Mike had made videos to help train dogs remotely during the Covid-19s lockdowns in the UK, and I don’t know if they realised then the impact they would eventually have on people like me. There are hundreds of videos in the online academy, each training session broken down into easily digestible clips where I could understand what is happening.
I can pause, replay and tick off what I’ve accomplished and each video builds off of the one before it. There are videos showing how to train a task with dogs that have never done the activity before so you see it from start to finish. Things don’t always go right but we can see the progression to correct the task - the information in these videos is invaluable.
Equally, every week the community get together for a Zoom or Facebook meeting. “There is no such thing as a silly question” is something I hear a lot during the Live sessions that Mike hosts. Knowing that if I have something I want to ask, my questions are answered by a professional trainer and behaviorist directly.
The Adolescent Dogs community itself is uplifting and I’m slowly getting to know others in the group and building relationships with like minded people, of both pet owners and other assistance dog handlers. While some of us are on the path of Assistance work I love knowing that questions someone may have about a beloved family pet can be answered in the same meeting as someone trying to navigate their way through task training for a disability - we’re all dog crazy at the end of the day. I’ve had other questions that I’ve asked Jenny directly through e-mail and she has always been a pleasure to talk to. Personally I feel safe in this environment and it’s helped my personal confidence.
Each month we have a different challenge that the community can take part in. January we had a Calm K9 Challenge to assist our dogs in settling in the house as well as outside in other environments, and now in March we are working through Scent Work as a group.
Scent work is something Mike is passionate about and as we are learning about the basics of Scent Training, which we hopefully will progress with Pumpkin in learning how to smell differences when my heart rate and blood pressure turn. Oncoming Migraines, blood sugar - there are many other ways a dogs nose can be used to help its handler - it’s a fascinating world.
There are other tasks that you can teach your dog to preform, one of which is Deep Pressure Therapy. This involves the dog using their weight on the handlers body, which can be across a lap, fully lying on the chest of the handler, or a number of other positions - but the reason for this ranges from tactile stimulation and utilizing the dogs weight to put pressure on the handler to help calm the heart, putting it briefly.
Pumpkin already knows how to interrupt when I’m inconsolable. When I cover my face she uses her nose to separate my hands and won’t stop trying until I look at her. She learned from the Assistance Academy how to walk around in circles so that I can have crowd control if I need space outside in a crowded setting. Another example is if I feel faint I can sit on the floor and she understands how to go under my legs and keep my knees raised. Currently we are working on how to interrupt self harm, so if I am alone she will be able to ground me and stop me from scratching repetitively.
There is a lengthy list of activities I want to work with her on because training has become a fun part of our day that we both look forward to. While we are only at the start of our adventure she has been an integral part of my healing process. When she wins I feel like I win and for someone like me that goes a long way.
The Adolescent Dogs training programs has become a special a part of our life and with new content being added I know that there is so much more that I can learn and apply for my future with Pumpkin.
I never knew that a dog would help me in so many different ways, but I want to reach others with PTSD and C-PTSD who, like me, didn’t realise that Owner Training a dog was an option. If your heart and your mind are in the right place, to take on that long term responsibility, you too can learn a lot about your own mind through the mind of your dog and hopefully one day have your life line be your best friend.
The Owner Trained Assistance Dog Programme at Adolescent Dogs is open to anyone whose disability has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities