While Southeastern Guide Dogs’ primary focus is providing top-notch guide dogs for individuals with visual impairments, not every dog is cut out for that demanding job.
“Career change” dogs, not perfectly suited for guiding, may now be trained as Veteran Assistance Dogs. Southeastern’s Paws for Patriots™ program recently expanded to provide veterans suffering the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with calm, steady dogs to act as an anchor in their tumultuous world. These dogs work with a dedicated team of certified Southeastern trainers to learn very specific commands that will give the veteran better control of their environment.
Once the dogs have been selected for the Veteran Assistance Dog program, the certified trainer takes the dog out in a variety of situations to assess the dog’s reaction. It is imperative that the dog remain calm, cool and collected in times that would be stressful to the handler such as noisy places, crowded spots and enclosed areas.
If the dog has shown itself to be rock-solid and empathetic, then the training begins in earnest. The first command the dogs are taught is “block.” The block command allows the handler to define and protect their personal space from anyone who may be approaching or interacting with them. When given the command, the dog will move in front of the handler and will stay there. This allows the handler to move back to a space that is comfortable for them.
Next the dogs learn to “watch.” In the watch command, the dog will move into a reverse heel position on the handler’s left side and by assessing the dog’s body posture, the handler will know if there is anyone approaching from behind and whether that person is a threat. If the handler is not comfortable with the dog's body language, he or she can then turn around to face whoever is approaching and move the dog into the block position. In military speak, this command is “watch my 6” – a way to ask your fellow soldier to watch your back.
A relatively new command the dogs then learn is “out.” Imagine you are coming to the end of an aisle and you can’t tell if someone is on either side – this would certainly raise some feelings of anxiety in someone suffering from PTSD. Well, when given the “out” command, the handler would lengthen the leash and the dog would move out into the end of the aisle, look both ways and alert if anyone is approaching.
The Veteran Assistance Dogs also act as balance compensation for the handler who may have ambulatory issues, vertigo or dizziness from medications. When given the “steady” command, the dog will brace its body and provide a third point of contact for the handler until the veteran is once again solidly on his or her feet. The handlers are also taught the correct way to use the dog as a brace so that it doesn’t cause them harm or pain and in some cases the dogs wear a special harness to assist in steadying.
In guide dog training, the dogs are taught a series of “find the…” commands. This could be things such as “find the chair,” “find the stairs,” or “find the elevator.” As Veteran Assistance Dogs, these commands are reinforced as the dogs are taught to “find the chair” and “find the door.” If the veteran is feeling uncomfortable in a situation, they may give the dog the “find the door” command and the dog will lead them to the nearest exit. Similarly, if the handler feels the need to move out of a situation and find a quiet place to regroup, the “find the chair” command may be given and the dog will take them to a place to rest.
The final main command the dogs learn may sound a bit “touchy feely,” but that’s exactly the point. Veteran Assistance Dogs are taught to hug on command. While all of us enjoy getting affection from our four-legged friends, the mere tactile support of the dog for the veteran can have a grounding effect, bringing the handler out of an anxiety-ridden reaction. When given the command, the dog will gently either put its paws over the handler’s legs or even up on their shoulders and will hold that position until the anxiety has passed.
The Veteran Assistance Dog program is new at Southeastern Guide Dogs. But we have already made a number of placements with veterans who are overjoyed to regain some of the independence the horrors of war took from them. Having a Veteran Assistance Dog on the job enables a veteran to re-enter the world; to go out to dinner again; to consider getting a job; to look forward to leaving the safety of the same four walls and to confront situations drawing confidence from a loving, beautifully trained, four-legged companion.