- Associated Press - Monday, November 24, 2014

SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) - Service animals have helped people in need for years, but with the surge of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, a new light shines upon service dogs.

Dogs designated to assist people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are becoming a more common sight in the area. Three students at Black Hills State University enlist the help of service dogs.

Army veteran Travis Floyd and his PTSD service dog, Marley, were the first on campus, the Black Hills Pioneer (https://bit.ly/1uF6ODS ) reported.

“He gets dreadlocks sometimes, so he got named after Bob (Marley),” Floyd said.

From 2000 to 2004, Floyd was an active duty infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division that invaded Iraq in March 2003. He was there until March 2004 and experienced the horrors of war. He suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from multiple explosions in close proximity - a SCUD missile impact and the explosions of improvised explosive devices, popularly referred to as IEDs.

“They didn’t even call it TBI when I got back from Iraq in 2004. I didn’t get tested till almost five years later,” Floyd said. “It was hard to say, they said, but all the signs and symptoms were there.”

In 2007, Floyd found Marley at the Twin City Animal Shelter in Lead. He wasn’t looking for a service animal at the time, but rather a “good friend.” He later learned about PTSD service dogs from the Veterans Administration at Fort Meade. Shortly thereafter, Floyd researched how to certify his four-legged companion and did just that.

“He helps out a lot - a medication reminder from time to time, he can tell when I need it,” Floyd said. “I have TBI, so my balance isn’t what it used to be. If I get off balance he’ll be there to catch me. At least I won’t fall on my face. I always have him by my side so I can put my hand on him.”

Marley also watches out for Floyd’s mental wellbeing.

“He’s a better indicator to me than I am of my anxiety level,” Floyd said. “If I’m stressed out, my anxiety level’s high . he’ll come and try to calm me down. He wants attention, wants to get petted. It’s a link I have with him.”

At other times Marley gets more physical.

“If I’m really having a bad day he’ll come up and hug me. He’ll put his paws up on my shoulder or his head on my shoulder,” Floyd said. “Other times it’s the ever-wanting of attention. If he thinks something is wrong he wants to check.”

Floyd and Marley have a close connection on campus with another veteran and his PTSD service dog, Boo.

Steve Weir, who served in the Army from 1982 to 1985, got his dog, Boo, three years ago after meeting Floyd and Marley.

“I don’t take psychotropic drugs, Boo’s all I need,” Weir said.

Boo - named after Boo Radley from the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” - and Weir also share a close bond.

“When it comes to this fellow here, I don’t know who trained who. It’s a mutual learning experience,” Weir said.

“I think it still is,” Floyd added.

“It wasn’t a matter of me teaching him how to respond to something, but it was a matter of me paying attention to how he responded to how I was acting and correcting my own behavior,” Weir explained.

“If I get into a state of depression he’ll grab a toy and want to play,” he added. “If he doesn’t do that he’ll want to go outside but won’t go until I go with him. Then he wants to play. If I start showing anxiety, he’ll hang his head, droop his ears, and tuck his tail, and I know I’m out of bounds. If I start getting aggressive toward someone, he’ll get between us and push me back. He’ll never go at them, even if they are hitting me.”

Both men said people are curious about their dogs and the program, but they’ve had a few people who are adamantly opposed to the idea of service animals in public places.

Weir recounted an unpleasant experience he and Boo had at a big-box hardware store one day. One of the employees there had an irrational fear of dogs and attempted to kick Weir and his companion out of the store.

“At one point he was belligerent and made a step in my direction. I stepped forward to meet him halfway. Boo got in between us and started nipping at my knees, pushing me back, and wouldn’t let me forward,” Weir said. “I don’t know where that came from because I didn’t teach him to do that. It was just his instinct. He protected me and that man.”

Floyd’s also had people express displeasure that he had Marley with him in a store.

“I was in the aisle, and this lady, from out of nowhere said, ‘Get your dog out of here. Nobody wants its fleas,’” Floyd said of a recent trip to a big-box retailer to purchase a birthday card.

But these cases are rare. Both men said they run into more people who simply don’t understand instead of those that are simply rude.

“The thing that gets me is some of the least likely people are the ones you have issues with. People who are educated and are seemingly bright, when you engage them in conversation, treat you in an ignorant way when you have your dog with you,” Weir said. “It’s like they are totally unaware of the program. I can understand that, but they don’t accept the program because they don’t like dogs.”

Floyd recalled how shocked he was when he found out the man who accosted him in the hardware store was a Vietnam veteran.

“I was like, ‘Why are you like this? It’s because of your generation and all the things you had to go through that we have these programs.’”

Both men said they have a bond with their dogs; they understand each other. And both believe that while they were training their dogs they also trained themselves.

“At first, it was me going to him when I was (in need of help) or past the point where I was really upset or depressed - whatever the case was that day. I would go to him, so he learned. I sometimes wonder if he can hear my heart rate or smell something chemical-wise. I don’t know what it is, but he associates the way I act with what I want him to do,” Floyd said.

Since both acquired their dogs, they’ve noticed more in the area. And while great strides have been made, more kinks in the program need to be worked out.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include: guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.

And since they are not pets, but working animals, service animals like Marley and Boo must be allowed to accompany people with disabilities in all public areas.

“It is a new idea to a lot of people,” Floyd said. “A lot of people think he is an emotional support dog or a companion dog. He is that, but I think every dog is that in a way. It’s not his main function.”

Both Floyd and Weir also have to remind people that the dogs are working even when it looks as if they’re not.

“Be aware: You should ask if I can pet your dog,” Floyd said. “It’s not that the dog isn’t friendly, he’s working. He can get distracted just like anyone else. You never know what the dog is doing for the person at that point in time.” Floyd admits he’s guilty of violating the rule, too.

“Boo tends not to listen sometimes because I’ve given him a few treats,” Floyd said of his friend’s dog. “You mean well but you throw a kink in the dog’s day.”

Weir said the dogs, like people, have their bad days and have their own quirks.

“If I don’t let him say ‘hi’ to people throughout the day, he throws a fit. He gets grumpy with me,” Weir said.

And both men chuckle at the somewhat embarrassing moments they’ve shared with their animals.

“My dog doesn’t like Walmart,” Weir said. “We can go to any store without an issue, we go to Walmart and he poops on the floor.”

“I’ve been pretty lucky as far as that,” Floyd said. “But (Marley) will yawn in class at the professor. Right at the beginning of class he’ll lie down and give a big, huge sigh and yawn. There’s been a few times when he was sleeping in class and has a dream. He’ll wake up barking and wakes everybody up in the class.”


Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, https://www.bhpioneer.com

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