VALPARAISO | Hyper-vigilance, fear of people and crowds forced David Horton to do his grocery shopping at 3 a.m. — when few people were in the store.
"I had this overall feeling of anxiousness and I would have panic attacks," said Horton, of Hammond.
Upon his discharge in 2010 from the U.S. Army after serving three tours in Iraq, Horton was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead of accepting "Army medicine" and its penchant for "throwing a lot of pills at you," Horton sought an "alternate means of therapy" for his PTSD.
So in 2012, Horton's wife Donna brought home a purebred 9-week-old German shepherd dog, Raven. Horton sought the help of Pets N Vets, a program of the Dunes Dog Training Club in Hebron, to train Raven as his service dog.
Besides teaching Raven basic obedience, the club's instructors helped Horton to train Raven to provide deep pressure therapy — where Raven presses her body against Horton, which calms him in anxious situations.
"It's like she's giving me a hug," said Horton. "She's saying 'hey, you’re all right.'"
Raven also learned "blocking," where she places her body between Horton and any perceived threat.
"When you have a panic attack, you can feel like you're drowning. Everything closes in around you," said Horton. "This dog gives me breathing room."
Jan Koutelas, an instructor at the dog training club, was one of the group who nominated Raven for the Hero Pet Award on Sunday at the Celebration of Wildlife.
"She watches his back," said Koutelas, of the relationship between Raven and Horton. "She's his battle buddy in life."
Raven won the Hero Pet Award not only for restoring normalcy to Horton's everyday life, but also for a recent incident that prevented Horton from being severely injured or even killed.
Horton and Raven were in the parking lot of a drugstore in December when suddenly Raven lunged at Horton, pushing him to the ground just before a car shot passed them.
"If she didn't do what she had done, either the dog or me or both of us would have been hit by a car speeding by," said Horton, who attributes Raven's quick action to the canine's acute hearing.
Horton describes his bond with Raven as a “win-win.”
"It's a symbiotic relationship,” said Horton. “She can't survive without me, because I provide for her needs. But I can't survive without her, either. The only thing that would separate us would be death."
Horton said Raven’s contribution toward easing his PTSD is the dog’s every day heroic act.
"Things that people take for granted every day, now I can do," said Horton. "Now I can go to a grocery store on a busy day, just like everyone else. I don't have to focus on worrying about being on guard so much or getting caught up in the struggle of being paranoid. I can focus on my life and healing myself."