After returning home from Iraq, retired United States Air Force Staff Sergeant Ryan Garrison experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But for a long time, he was in denial about it. It wasn’t until his wife Julie met Rick Yount, executive director of Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), that he put two and two together.
Yount, a licensed social worker, started WCC in 2011. The nonprofit organization enlists veterans to help train service dogs for fellow veterans. Yount himself first realized the power dogs have to offer comfort and support over 25 years ago.
At the time, Yount had to go to work and didn’t want to leave a golden retriever puppy he’d been given for Christmas home alone. Instead, he decided to bring him along. He had “no plan” and thought he would just leave him in the car with the windows down. By chance that day, Yount was tasked with picking up a child from his birth parent’s home and moving him into foster care.
“The kid was in the car with me and another stranger, traumatized, and sobbing,” he recalls. “But about a mile down the road, he went silent. The puppy had his head resting on his lap.”
That was a powerful “lightbulb” moment for Yount. Since founding WCC, he’s witnessed how having veterans train service dogs for fellow warriors teaches them to be patient. It also gives them a sense of purpose.
Power of the pooch
Julie Garrison, a music therapist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, first met Yount and his puppies-in-training while at work. At the time, Julie’s husband Ryan was still on active duty, though now at a desk job. His PTSD symptoms were manageable, and he would try to “fight through” them, he describes. But at times, he would get angry, even to the point of throwing chairs at the wall. His psychologist recommended an antipsychotic medication. But Ryan didn’t like how he felt on it. “I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience,” he says. He told his doctor he didn’t want to take it anymore.
Luckily, Julie convinced Ryan to start working with dogs at WCC. That’s when Luke, a black lab, came into his life. The two had an almost instant connection. “He and I bonded really well,” Ryan describes. “We first went to the grocery store, and every time I said something, he would react.” Ryan tried the same cues with other dogs, but they didn’t always respond. Other trainers at the organization noticed, telling Ryan, “Hey, you guys really click.”
Traditionally, veterans who work with the WCC program train the dogs from the time they are puppies for up to two years. They teach them specific tasks to meet a fellow vet’s needs. If they’re in a wheelchair, for example, they might need to learn to open doors, fetch water bottles, or turn lights on and off. Ryan and Luke’s instant bond meant they surpassed some of the initial steps and started working together right away. A few months later, Ryan brought Luke home.
The results were nothing short of amazing. With Luke around, Ryan told his psychiatrist he didn’t need medication anymore. Luke is able to pick up on all of Ryan’s triggers, including clenched fists and reactions to road rage. Now, when Ryan starts to get agitated, Luke nudges him or rests his head on his lap when the two are driving together. “He’s just calming,” Ryan says.
Luke is also helping Ryan with mobility. He sustained a severe back injury in Iraq while escaping a grenade blast. Ryan can lean on him for support when standing up from a chair, and pull on his vest for brace and balance.
Puppies and PTSD
Ryan and Luke recently “graduated” from the WCC training program, but will continue to work together. Ryan highly recommends service animals to help with anxiety and PTSD, but recognizes that it won’t work for everyone.
“It’s not a 100 percent cure or substitute for medication or therapy,” he says. “But medications could have a number of side effects. I tell people dogs have two side effects: drool and fur. If you can put up with those, you should think about getting a dog.”