Overcoming PTSD Together

September 22, 2011  

After rescuing Wilbur, his guardian finds he’s naturally inclined for service-dog work

By Dana Hopkins

I am a writer, a mom, a proud freak, an Agent Orange widow, a queer activist, a non-combat trauma PTSD survivor, a neighbor, and I have Wilbur, a pit mix.

Wilbur survived malnourishment, mistreatment, living conditions we don’t want to imagine, and I believe he has his own form of PTSD. He was found running the streets of a neighborhood notorious for backyard dog fighting and puppy mills. He was completely hairless and covered in rashes and filth when he was found. He was emaciated, with a bloated belly full of worms and had white toenails from malnutrition.

So I feel like we have a lot in common.

Wilbur was about a year old when Jaqueline Loxley rescued him. First he went to Yoga Dog before I got the honor of being Wilbur’s forever home.

Together we worked on socialization and recovery.

Service Dog in Training

Wilbur is a “helpy dog,” as I like to call him. He is a natural service animal. Right now, we’re in the process of working toward our Canine Good Citizen test and getting a letter from my doctor prescribing him as my service dog. As soon as we meet those requirements, he’ll be a graduate from my self-dubbed title to a full-fledged assistance dog in California.

I’ve had plenty of experience with night terrors, and Wilbur did exactly what worked for me.

In the meantime, just his presence is therapeutic. Take last night for example. Wilbur sensed me tossing and turning. He wriggled up from his deep, snoring slumber by my feet, curled up as close to me as he could get, laid his big head on my shoulder and snuggled up to me before conking back out. He snorted a little, too, but that’s commonplace. He was named after the pig in “Charlotte’s Web,” after all.

His trick put me right to sleep. Just try to stay awake with 75 pounds of warm, cuddly, sweet-smelling dog next to you breathing deeply.

In the wee hours I woke, gasping, weeping, heart pounding, disoriented, struggling to get up and bolt to who knows where. Wilbur gently but firmly pinned my shoulders down with his paws and licked my face till I was fully awake. He didn’t let me up until I was fully in the here and now, and my breathing had returned to normal.

I’ve had plenty of experience with night terrors, and Wilbur did exactly what worked for me. I did not get up and stumble around the house disoriented. In the past, I have been unable to calm down, but this time I was able return to sleep 45 minutes later. This is a huge improvement in my quality of life because five months ago this would have been impossible for me.

What you should understand is that pinning down my shoulders and licking my face is an actual assistance task. On top of that duty, he could easily be trained to bring me a small box or basket of medicine, as many PTSD service dogs do. Fortunately, I no longer need to train Wilbur to bring me medication because, with his help, I’m getting weaned off of them.

Facing the Day

Some mornings I wake up and just don’t want to face the world. On those days, Wilbur nuzzles, licks and paws back the covers to pry me out.

If I don’t do it quickly enough for him, he’ll run into the bathroom and grab a bath towel as if to say, “Get your ass out of bed and get in the shower.”

On most mornings by 8:30 a.m., we’re out the door for our morning walk. This is where we both work through our PTSD.

Wilbur happily walks down the street by my side, but it wasn’t always that way.

When he first came to me he was fearful. He’d carry his tail between his legs, and he was easily spooked. I started him with little around-the-block walks late at night or early when the streets were quiet. Then together we gradually worked up to longer distances.

I introduced him to neighbors I knew by letting him see me touch them, and then I’d reward him with a treat when he touched with nose or paw. I’d always praise him when he was brave.

These days he’s Mr. Popular.

After blocks of walking we make it past the “Scary Lady’s” house without crossing the street. Wilbur’s “Scary Lady” is a disheveled, spaced out 30-something-year-old toothless meth addict who often stands outside her home smoking, looking lost and sad. When we first took longer walks, Wilbur could not even pass on the other side of the street from her without shaking and whining.

If I am relaxed and happy, so is he. If I am tense, he sticks close to my side and leans slightly against me.

I suspect he behaves this way because he most likely escaped from a puppy mill or a dog-fighting house. Wilbur seems to sense when someone is high, and he behaves in a frightened way.

After 45 minutes of walking, Wilbur and I arrive at Starbucks.

Whenever we pass someone in the street on the way, Wilbur places himself between me and the person while still wagging his tail. This is another task of PTSD service dogs.

At the mall, he’s friendly but he can also sense my vibe. If I am relaxed and happy, so is he. If I am tense, he sticks close to my side and leans slightly against me. He’ll block me from lots of people. He is not aggressive. He’s just there.

Sometimes we’ll run into a table full of neighborhood guys, veterans and bikers. They all love Wilbur, talk to him and shower him with attention whenever we see them. Oddly enough, Wilbur is a bridge that connects us, and they often talk to me about their PTSD.

After coffee, we walk a few blocks to the Pet Express, Wilbur’s favorite stop. On the way, we have to cross a busy intersection.

Today, Wilbur disappeared behind my legs while I waited for the light. I was concerned that he was still more fearful of traffic than I had thought. I looked behind me, ready to pull him forward. Wilbur was standing attentively directly behind me politely “blocking” between me and a large guy on a bicycle. The traffic was so loud, I hadn’t heard the man ride up. Across the street, we walked into Pet Food Express, and Wilbur was greeted by all the staff, given treats and generally fussed over. He never took his eyes off of me, though and only stayed to be petted if I stayed too. I got the information I needed about the next Canine Good Citizenship test with a local certified trainer.

Wilbur had been extra good and extra brave, so I found a bright green, durable squeaky toy and an orange replacement for when he inevitably chews the squeaker out. He was bouncy with delight when the salesgirl demonstrated the squeaker for him.

Since I have had Wilbur, these PTSD symptoms have dramatically decreased.

I paid and we headed for home. First, we got through the mall area. It was very crowded, so Wilbur leaned in on me, nuzzled my hand, blocked and was extra alert. I talked to some friends, and he relaxed a little sensing my comfort.

Once in the neighborhood, I praised and petted Wilbur, and then gave him his new green squeaky. He proudly carried it all the many blocks home, waiting until we were in the door with his harness removed to happily lay down and play with it.

As I write this at my computer, Wilbur is asleep on my feet, his new squeaky inches from his nose. Later today we will have more adventures. Most likely today, I will not have a panic attack or other PTSD-related symptom, but if I do, Wilbur knows what to do. Since I have had Wilbur, these PTSD symptoms have dramatically decreased.

Soon, Wilbur will be able to accompany me everywhere, including public transportation. And any landlord will be required by law to rent to me, with him, should I need to move.

Pit Bulls as Service Dogs

Because of the myths and misconceptions about the nature of pit bulls, I want to be extra sure Wilbur is an exemplary canine citizen – an ambassador for his breed as well as for PTSD assistance dogs. The stereotypes about pit bulls are truly ironic, as being so intuitive, naturally empathetic and easy to train, pits are actually one of the breeds best suited to PTSD service dog work.

Here are some helpful links about service dogs and the ADA laws about them. Remember that because of the HIPPAA law, if you have a disability, you do not have to share with anyone but your doctor what the nature of your disability is.

Psychiatric Service Dog Society (PSDS)
Psychiatric Service Dog Society FAQs
Service Dog Central
Americans with Disabilities Act – Service Animals

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5 Responses to “Overcoming PTSD Together”
  1. AWESOME story! I felt as if I were on the walk with you & Wilbur lol Glad to hear that both lives have been enriched and a natural balance has been restored. You are who you and and Wilbur is who he is…keep loving and showing the world what the power of love can do!

  2. DanaHopkins says:

    Wilbur & I DO have that doctor’s letter…I recommend several legitimate sites including this one, that provide brochures & info for MDs that you can take to your doctor,.http://www.psychdog.org/ Mine was happy to learn more.

    Thanks for all your good wishes. Wilbur just recovered from a week of scary kennel cough. He is his bouncy, happy self again. As i held him while he recovered, i truly realized how much we have healed each other.

  3. DanaHopkins says:

    Please feel welcome to find us on FB 🙂 https://www.facebook.com/groups/62034576168/#!/reddivadana

  4. millermorgan says:

    Wilbur is a gem. I’m so glad you have each other.

  5. AngelaJordan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing yours and Wilbur’s story! My Pit Bull, Joshua, and I are on a strikingly similar path. It means so much to share with others how Pit Bulls can make such a positive impact on people’s lives…particularly in this way. I have been told by several people that “Pit Bulls can’t be service dogs” and asked “what a psychological service dog does”. I’ll be sharing your story as it speaks to both points so well. Best wishes to you both!!!