When His Owner Starts to Panic, This Veteran’s Dog Knows Just What to Do

Service dogs are the best.
Oct 3, 2014·
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

Not everyone in the U.S. military Erick Scott served with in Iraq came back. He has a bad case of survivor’s guilt, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, but he is wary of the diagnosis and meds prescribed for his condition.

“They can’t put that stigma on me just because of what supposedly I have,” he says in this USA Today video.

Still, something was clearly wrong. Scott was waking up covered in sweat, he was lashing out at his wife in his sleep, and nothing seemed to help. That is, until he met Gumbo, a service dog trained by K9 Warriors, a Florida-based nonprofit that provides service dogs to vets with PSTD or brain injuries.

Dogs can be crucial to soldiers’ well-being, in combat and at home. Some even work for the U.S. military, sniffing out explosives and suspects on the battlefield.

Back in civilian life, surviving is still a challenge. Twenty percent of veterans of the most recent Iraq war suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Between 2000 and 2007, one in every three veterans who sought care from the Veterans Health Administration had some kind of mental disorder. Of the VA's 6.4 million patients, 500,000 have been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Suicide is the leading cause of death in the armed forces, and 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

Service dogs are just one of many alternatives to traditional talk therapy and medication being used to treat vets with PTSD. People struggling with war-related trauma have anecdotally reported benefits from acupuncture, yoga, and group therapy programs, include art making and meditation. Veterans are trying horseback riding, scuba diving, and tai chi. Over time, mental health specialists have recognized that treating the complexity and severity of trauma from war requires an open mind and a willingness to embrace unconventional treatments.

Outside the military, many people who struggle with mental illness or PTSD have been helped by service dogs. It can also be a way for those suffering from trauma or anxiety to learn more about their condition and its symptoms.

“I found that if I am not calm, [my dog] begins to act up. This is my clue to do an internal check to see what is really going on inside,” said one service dog handler in an article on the website Behavioral Healthcare.

Now, with Gumbo watching his back, Scott says he feels “a lot more optimistic” about his diagnosis.