He doesn’t often remember the nightmares themselves, but can recall the feeling of them with absolute clarity.
Mike Petz, 37, of Wauseon hated waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, it was as if he couldn’t breathe.
“I wake up gasping for air like I’ve been holding my breath in my sleep,” he said.
The former Marine sergeant isn’t sure what memories haunt his sleep. His wife, April, told him he occasionally mumbles as if he’s having a tense conversation or utters a series of coordinates as if he’s calling for reinforcements.
But now, instead of jolting awake harshly, a yellow Labrador retriever named Bosko licks his face.
The service dog is trained to wake Sergeant Petz from his nightmares. Bosko is the first service dog provided by the Paws Forces, a new program of the Maumee-based the Arms Forces that helps veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries get services.
Pam Hays founded the Arms Forces in 2009.
She is not a veteran, but is a survivor of a severe traumatic brain injury. She said she prayed for guidance in finding a way to remain active, and God instructed her to work with veterans.
“I literally yelled out, ‘God, you made your first mistake. There’s no way this girly girl is gonna be able to work with the military,’ ” she said. “But the more I got into it, I realized that a lot of the struggles I’ve had in my life are very similar to veterans.”
Miss Hays said PTSD and traumatic brain injuries are “invisible wounds.”
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder caused by traumatic experiences such as war, abuse, accidents, and natural disasters. It may develop over time and can present with a variety of symptoms including flashbacks, anxiety, anger issues, and difficulty sleeping.
Presence of PTSD
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD estimates 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD.
Traumatic brain injuries are the result of an external force damaging brain cells or tissue, typically after a violent blow. The injuries can cause both mental and physical symptoms that vary widely depending on the severity and area of the brain affected.
The Department of Defense and the Defense and Veteran’s Brain Injury Center estimate 22 percent of all combat casualties from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are brain injuries. As many as 80 percent of those veterans with other blast-related injuries also may have traumatic brain injuries.
As the Arms Forces’ reputation grew, Miss Hays fielded an increasing number of inquiries about service dogs. She previously had to refer local veterans to programs about two or three hours away.
“That just doesn’t work for training and everything,” she said. “It was really heavy on my heart.”
She contacted John Brown, owner of Let’s Train! Dog Training in Toledo, about a year ago to begin the Paws Forces. He immediately agreed to volunteer with the fledgling program to provide trained service dogs at no cost to veterans in need.
“Veterans have done so much for us, and they get overlooked,” Mr. Brown said. “There are a lot of things [service dogs] can do for them.”
A great help
Like Bosko, dogs can be trained to wake people from nightmares.
They can alert to and help calm stress and agitation, interrupt flashbacks and bring their owners back to reality, warn of someone approaching from behind, physically block others from getting too close, remind their owners to take medications, and do myriad other tasks.
The goal, Miss Hays said, is simply to allow veterans impacted by PTSD or a traumatic brain injury to live a normal life.
“The long-term effect, to be able to be comfortable, what does that do to their social life? Their family life?” she said.
Sally Irvin is the founder and program director of the Indianapolis-based Indiana Canine Assistant Network, a board member of Assistance Dogs International, and a psychologist. She said the use of service dogs has grown in recent years as the industry becomes more aware of dogs’ ability to help people.
“There’s a lot more research being done on cognition in dogs and what they are capable of processing,” Ms. Irvin said. “There’s also been more interest in service dogs for different disabilities and more people utilizing them.”
Placing service animals with people who have mental disabilities is more complicated than for those with physical disabilities, she said.
“The provider has to understand the disability and how it presents itself for that person,” Ms. Irvin said. “You don’t want to enable the person’s symptoms; you want to help them deal productively with their symptoms. We want the symptoms to lessen over time.”
As the medical community has gotten better at recognizing PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, more individuals are being diagnosed, Ms. Irvin said. The use of service dogs to help with those issues is also rising.
“This is a very cost-effective way of truly helping these people manage their symptoms,” she said.
Miss Hays is starting the Paws Forces slowly and carefully, and is following general guidelines.
She handpicked two of the Arms Forces’ clients whom she knows extensively — Sergeant Petz and Staff Sgt. Mike Martin of Toledo, a former Army paratrooper who also has PTSD — to receive the first dogs.
While there are commonalities, each person with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury has different struggles and needs. So each service dog has to be trained specifically for the individual.
“What works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for another,” Miss Hays said.
Sergeant Petz served with the 7th Engineer Support Battalion from 1997 to 2003 in Japan, Korea, Thailand, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq. He then joined the reserves with the 3rd Battalion 25th Marines based in Brook Park near Cleveland.
Much happened during his time in active duty, but those events aren’t what weigh most heavily on his heart and mind. Because he had little time left in his service and was a single father, he did not deploy to Iraq with the rest of the 3/25 in March, 2005.
Forty-eight men were killed during that tour, and Sergeant Petz watched from the sidelines as his Marine brothers returned home in caskets.
“The worst part, the things that bother me the most, was not being there on that last one [with the 3/25],” he said. “It took a long time to come to the realization that it wouldn’t have mattered if I was there or not.”
Sergeant Petz was later diagnosed with PTSD as a result of his experiences in the Marines, and Bosko will help him manage and work through the problems it causes.
Shane Braun of Jackson, Mich., formerly of Toledo, had been Bosko’s primary trainer while Mr. Brown opened his personal business. The Lab lived with Mr. Braun after being given to the program when his previous owner couldn’t handle his energy.
“He was really easy to train, very smart,” Mr. Braun said. “He actually woke me up once out of a real dream, not practice.”
During a weekend visit earlier this month, Bosko twice awakened Sergeant Petz from nightmares. Bosko went home to live with Sergeant Petz last weekend and is already having a noticeable positive impact. The dog’s presence alone is helping relieve anxiety and tension.
“It’s just really incredible,” Sergeant Petz said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
Sergeant Petz said he gets excessively agitated by everyday minor annoyances most people hardly notice, and it can set off an angry, destructive spiral that also affects his wife and three children. But now he and Bosko are bonding strongly, and the dog is naturally picking up on the agitation and redirecting Sergeant Petz’s attention to him.
“He’s just staying more level,” Mrs. Petz said of her husband. “And he’s more motivated to do things. Bosko is good for him, and what’s good for him is also good for me and the kids.”
Bosko is still training. Sergeant Petz plans to get Bosko alerted specifically to his agitation so he knows when he needs to step back and evaluate versus when the dog is simply seeking attention.
Bosko is already learning to remind him to take his medications, and has naturally taken over Mrs. Petz’s former job of pestering the sergeant to get out of bed and get going each morning.
“I want to train him to do that with an alarm,” he said.
Though the Petz family already had another dog for companionship, the effect Bosko and his training has is entirely different for the sergeant.
“He’s got my back, and to have a dog I can trust like that is priceless,” he said.
That security is exactly what Sergeant Martin, 32, is hoping for when he receives the Paws Forces’ next service dog.
He served 10 years in the Army with the 425th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, traveling to Korea, Thailand, Kuwait, Iraq, Scotland, Ireland, and Alaska.
Sergeant Martin said he has been hit by roadside bombs, among other experiences. He struggles with nightmares, anxiety, and anger issues.
“My biggest fear is having someone come up from behind me when I don’t know it and getting a drop on me,” he said. “To have someone watching my back, the parts that I can’t see, that’s what I want.”
Because of a strong startle reflex with an instinctively aggressive reaction, Sergeant Martin worries he may hurt someone who innocently runs past him from behind and gets too close.
“I’d rather have a dog bark and let me know someone’s behind me before they startle me,” he said.
The program was initially training Fozzie, a golden Aussiedoodle donated by a breeder, for Sergeant Martin, but the dog turned out to be too sensitive to noise for service work and was adopted out to a family who plans to make her a therapy dog. Mr. Brown, formerly the behavior technician at Lucas County Canine Care and Control, is now working with a Labrador retriever/boxer mix named Simon pulled from the county shelter in Toledo this month.
Miss Hays said she always envisioned taking dogs from local shelters when a potential candidate for service work was found.
It not only saves the dog’s life and potentially saves a veteran’s as well, but is an inexpensive way to obtain a dog for training.
Sergeant Martin has been more involved in helping to train Simon than he was with Fozzie, though he is fully aware that the rescue dog also may eventually be found not fit for service work. But that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy the process.
“It gives me something to do, and it’s fun. I like to learn new stuff,” Sergeant Martin said. “I’ve always had dogs, ever since I was a kid, but I’ve never trained a dog before.”
Miss Hays hopes The Paws Forces can continue to grow and help local veterans, even if only with a dog or two at a time.
“The way I look at it, we’re just human beings reaching out to others,” she said. “We’re just people trying to help each other, and that’s really as simple as it is.”
Donations to the Arms Forces and its programs can be made online at thearmsforces.org or by sending a check to P.O. Box 981, Maumee, 43537.